Mr. Coffee

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 2005

The coffee farmer from Africa used to build houses in Harlem. He used to study at Stanford and protest war and racism. He fought with his fists as a black kid under siege by first-grade classmates at a white private school in Connecticut.

For fun, he'd ride bareback on his childhood horse named Diamond, even swim with the beast in the pond on his family's six-acre estate.

And when little David Robinson, his big sister Sharon and older brother Jackie Jr. went out to dinner with their parents, they were amazed when crowds would line up to get an autograph from their famous father, Jackie Robinson, the pride of black America, the first black man in baseball's major leagues.

The coffee farmer from Africa is tall and erect, as his father was. And he's got the same rich dark skin, piercing eyes and strong brow, though the thick beard and dashiki hint at a different kind of life, one that would have perplexed his late father.

He is here for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where his Tanzanian Arabica coffee is being featured. The American Institute of Wine and Food held a reception at David Greggory restaurant for him and some Bolivian chocolate makers too. The question on everyone's lips, as always, was: How did this man become a coffee farmer in Africa?

"I was blessed to have gone to Tanzania when I was 15, in the company of my mother; went back at 19; settled there in 1984," says Robinson, giving the short answer. "I went to be involved in international economics. Coffee is the largest foreign exchange earner for Tanzania. America is the largest consumer of coffee in the world.

"I was a fisherman for a moment," he adds wryly, "but my first export of lobster was declared spoiled."

He ticks off this progression, this reasoning, as if it were pure logic, cause and effect, that called him to Africa.

But the story of how this scion of a civil rights icon transplanted himself in Africa goes much deeper. In fact, it goes to the roots of the Jackie Robinson legacy, to the civil rights struggle, to slavery.

It is a deeply American story, though it is playing out in Africa -- mirroring all those African stories that were played out in America. And the fact that he is a descendant of Africans shipped to America in chains is why a reverse trek, a return to Africa, seemed a logical move for someone with Robinson's ideologic bent.

What he once did in Harlem, building houses for his father's construction company, then building sweat equity in a black real estate cooperative, Robinson, 53, is doing in a different way in Africa. He views his work as a melding of black aspirations from both sides of the Atlantic.

He called himself a pan-Africanist during the 1970s when many black activists in the United States and Africa espoused a common purpose. Robinson still hews to that ideal, though now he calls himself a "humanist." His focus, though, remains the same: lifting the race, as folks used to say in his father's day.

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