- Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa by Keith Richburg
New Republic/Basic Books, 257 pp, £20.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 465 00187 4
I have been thinking about Responsibility ever since visiting Mogadiscio last year: the householder’s responsibility to the household, that of the smaller community to the larger, of the larger to the entire nation, and of the nation to the world as a whole. I have thought about all this in reaction to the collapse of several African nations into civil anarchy, Somalia going the way of Liberia, and Rwanda and Burundi moving towards a similar collapse. I have been thinking, too, about the soldiers-in-power in the Gambia emulating those of Ghana, and of Nigeria, where I live for the time being, moving constantly to the brink of ungovernability. Freedom is of a piece with Responsibility, an informed Freedom which can help one know one’s place and role in the apocalyptic history of this continent and its peoples, wherever they are found.
When I was in Mogadiscio I talked to men and women about Responsibilities: what their own responsibilities to their families were, and where their community’s responsibilities to the nation lay. The answers were not very different from those you would get to the same questions in Sudan, Uganda, the Gambia, Ethiopia and Nigeria – all countries where I have lived. I doubt that the answers given by African Americans would be any different, insofar as many would also point to the failure of their own leadership, and then, by way of extenuation, to the conduct of the White Man.
Africans and African Americans share many points of contact as a result of slavery and colonialism. Apart from our common origin, we both tend to speak in very general terms about what is wrong with us and our societies. We forget that failure is endemic to the enslaved and the colonised, and either dwell too much on the past, or not enough, in seeking to explain the present. At this point in the history of Africans and African Americans, there is bad blood all round – in Africa, because of narcissistic differences between the peoples within each country; within the African American community, because of a failure of trust. There are major differences between the African and the African American, the one with cultural roots bedded in the continent’s particular soil and particular neuroses, the other dependent on a mix of their own and others’ histories. However, there is no unitary African and no unitary African American, even though we are all products of a project which placed us at the bottom of the racial heap. We are by turns deferential to one another and contemptuous of one another, all in the spirit of familiars. I am reminded of how Somalis on either side of the British and Italian borders of my country would size one another up, and how each would factor into the equation the knowledge that both tended to replicate the habits of their former Italian and British colonial masters. A similar sizing up and factoring in informs Keith Richburg’s Out of America, but it goes hand in hand with unattractive denials, which distance Richburg from his African origins and from an awareness that a man in his position – a journalist at the Washington Post, formerly bureau chief for Africa and then for Hong Kong – owes something of his success to the African Americans, and Africans, before him who made the long journey away from slavery and colonialism. Richburg puts me in mind of a friend, a fellow Somali, now a naturalised American, who, driven by the demonic contempt in which he held that part of him that was Somali, began denying any link to his country of birth and claimed instead to come from a neighbouring state. Richburg does much the same for Africa. Out of America is almost pathologically concerned to distinguish its author from the failings of the continent that he is covering, and from the community towards which he should have some degree of responsibility. We live in dangerous times, when eerie voices give thanks for slavery.
Richburg has done precisely this, and in the process deleted his complex historical identity with a couple of sentences which have attracted a folly of commentary far in excess of what Out of America is worth. ‘Thank God,’ he writes, ‘my nameless ancestor, brought across the ocean in chains and leg irons, made it out alive. Thank God I am an American.’ Subtitled ‘A Black Man Confronts Africa’, his book is described in the blurb as ‘an African journey of the heart ... a brilliant, electrifying story of one man’s hard-won liberation’. Liberation – or freedom – without responsibility. ‘Before my arrival in Nairobi,’ he writes, admitting that he knew very little about his patch, ‘my exposure to Africa had been limited, to put it generously; if truth be told, I cared very little [about the continent]. I was always more fascinated by European history and Asian politics ... Most of what I knew came from watching reruns of the old Tarzan series on television and Daktari!’
Nor was his childhood typical of that of a young black in Detroit. ‘It was,’ he says, ‘an average American childhood ... until the riot happened.’ Richburg was raised in ‘a racially mixed, if anything mostly white, Irish and Polish’ neighbourhood. After the Detroit riots in 1967, however, ‘the white people whom I knew moved out to the suburbs, the churches became emptier, the schools blacker, and ironically less Catholic.’ He was sent to a high school ‘nestled away in a well-heeled pristine suburb, Grosse Pointe Woods’, with its ‘manicured lawns, spacious parking lot, tennis courts’. He commuted between what was now the ghetto, and the school. ‘Only occasionally in my high-school years,’ he tells us, ‘was I made conscious of my place in America’s other world. In the 11th or 12th grade, a group of us organised a class trip to see a roller derby competition. The arena, Olympia Stadium, was smack in the inner city, in a run-down neighbourhood ... I lived a block and a half from the stadium.’ After the game and before his white classmates board their bus back to Grosse Pointe, one of the white girls asks a neighbourhood girl what Richburg describes as an ‘ill-advised’ question about ‘an Afro comb, a pick, stuck in the back of her hair’. All hell breaks loose:
So now you’ve got a bunch of white kids, clambering onto their bus, and a bunch of angry black kids hitting at the windows with chains and bottles ... There were shouts and slurs flying in both directions. And there I was, on both sides, on neither side – not wanting to have to take sides. I got the hell out of there as fast as I could ... I’ll tell you what I was thinking then: I was embarrassed. Humiliated ... I just ran away.
Richburg is clearly biased in the retelling of his history, in favour of the whites among whom he was schooled. They never made him ‘feel unwelcome’ and he was ‘never subjected to any hostility’, while African Americans embarrassed him, and Africans make him ill at ease, because they ‘might not consider me black enough’.
Out of America gets off to a shaky start, that of a man visiting his own history for the first time and reinventing it as he does so. There are two sides to the African American, a private side expressing what one might call ‘blackness’, and a public one which responds to the demands made by the outside world on the private domain. But it’s in the nature of Richburg’s public cowardice that he distances himself from his blackness in all manner of ways. The rest is so much anguish, the public no more authentic than the private, both characteristic of the journeyman in the service of those who can still see the virtues of slavery and colonialism.
Richburg has an athlete’s agility in the performing of somersaults, and great dexterity in standing one misunderstanding on the head of another. His book reads as if it were the work of many hands. Maybe there are faultlines in his character, but the impression is of something unthought through. His report from Somalia begins: ‘I got my first experience with a mortar shell while interviewing the president of a country that no longer existed.’ Richburg will tell you he is in Somalia because of ‘the story’ about ‘a nation in meltdown, an incredible story’, and because, in their Eurocentrism, American network news programmes report every day from Bosnia while scarcely mentioning Somalia, a fact which cuts him to the quick: ‘If ever there was a reason for being in Africa – for being a journalist in Africa – this seemed like one. The world may not have cared about Somalia ... but I could force them to care by rubbing their faces in it every day, by shoving the pictures of starving kids ... in dispatches run regularly on the front page ... Somalia was the prism through which I came to view the rest of Africa.’ It’s a matter of a journalist of African American descent going after a Big Story in Somalia, a country that no longer existed.
Richburg hasn’t been long in this non-existent country when he sets out for Merca, a pre-colonial city along the coast, taking a carload of gunmen for protection. On his way, he comes upon villagers in scraps of clothing; the roadsides are littered with dead bodies.
For the first time since my brother Mel died 25 years before, I was confronted with death, close up; the dead and dying were all around me, and I was looking into their faces. And my first thought was: They look like me. That could be me, I said to myself, were it not for the grace of God. And I at once found the thought so disgusting, so self-centred, so conceited, that I immediately banished it from my consciousness.
Here and elsewhere in Somalia, Richburg the journalist fails in his duty to his subject. He finds the victims disgusting, while enjoying the company of the warlords, to whom he pays court without any apparent discomfort. We are back in his boyhood days, when he preferred the company of privileged whites to that of the disadvantaged. He rages against Somalis for questioning American intentions or those of the foreign press, but is undisturbed to see American Marines humiliating Somalis:
The ‘intervasion’ was bizarre from the start, launched with some rather comic scenes. Like the squad of young marines at Mogadiscio’s airport when they spot a group of Somalis sleeping in some abandoned cars ... the Marines pulled the Somalis out one by one at gunpoint and shouted at them, in English, to lie down on their stomachs ... the camera crews and photographers shouting at the Somalis to roll over onto their backs so they could get pictures of the terrified expressions on their faces.
If he is outraged by the Marines’ behaviour, he doesn’t say so. I am alarmed that for a black boy from Detroit, this scene doesn’t evoke images of white policemen humiliating black youths.
Then there is the helicopter sortie against General Aideed’s house – Aideed, a murderer turned the outlaw hero of a Western, thanks to Admiral Howe’s ‘Wanted’ posters – in which some two hundred unarmed civilians are killed. Richburg is somewhat dismayed by the conduct of the Americans:
The attack was a slaughter. A half-dozen cobras pumped 16 TOW missiles and two thousand rounds of cannon fire into the house with deadly accuracy. First they blew away the stairwell to prevent anyone from escaping. Then they blasted their missiles and cannon fire directly into the top floor of the house ... A video taken just after the attack showed the mangled bodies literally blown apart in the attack – the religious leaders, the elders, even the women in their colourful wrap-dresses who were always on hand to serve the tea. American soldiers dropped in and took pictures of the carnage, just to confirm that it was a job well done. No call for those inside to come out and surrender. No warning to vacate the premises. Just a straight-out, bloody massacre.
Soon after this, four of Richburg’s colleagues show up to report on what has happened. A crowd gathers, forming itself into an angry mob, rocks are thrown, knives and guns come out, the journalists are beaten to death. He reacts far more savagely to this than he had to the helicopter killings: ‘I’m left naked, shorn of all my truths and certainties, no longer sure what I believe. And I am hating them, the Somalis. Hating them because they betrayed me. Hating myself for having been so wrong, for setting myself up for betrayal.’ The picture of anguish itself, Richburg spends a great deal of energy performing surgery on his guilt.
Elsewhere, he gives us mere ephemera, hackneyed interpretations of what is happening in Africa, as he casts about in his massive self-promotion. As a child, in Detroit, he ran from his blackness; as an adult he glorifies his Americanness. As a journalist, he speaks on behalf of the Africa-bashers, whether he means to or not. Africa is not always a welcoming place and it produces strong reactions from outsiders. You take to it or you don’t. If it takes to you, it will pick you up, carry you on its back and pamper you with affection; it may, however, rebut all your advances. The continent has clearly refused to take Richburg into its confidence – maybe because he lacks the measure of its complicated histories. The issues that an Africa bureau chief has to deal with, after all, are very great; the man, in this case, is not.