When Bishop Desmond Tutu or the Rev. Allan Boesak come to Washington, as both men have recently, I am pleasantly reminded of the passion and intellect, commitment and courage that they possess. As a black man, I am proud because they are Africans. Yet, I am saddened because their qualities I so admire are not possessed by Afro-American leaders in this country.
In America, black civil rights personalities pale by comparison to those produced in South Africa. And on any given day our elected officials can appear as colorless cookie cutouts of the white politicians who preceded them. In the case of Philadelphia's Wilson Goode, they can be quite tasteless, too.
Perhaps this is just part of the price we pay to be "integrated" into American society, and frankly I would not want to live in segregated South Africa just to be near Desmond Tutu.
But all you have to do is spend a few minutes listening to any of the black South African leaders -- including Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress -- to know that we black Americans are seriously lacking when it comes to having real-life political heavyweights.
To be sure, America is not South Africa. But here we are today, the wealthiest, most educated black population in the world, and we can find only one man -- Jesse L. Jackson -- to mount a noticeable bid for the presidency.
Where are the black Americans who can speak on foreign affairs like Julius Nyerere, the former president of Tanzania? Randall Robinson is good, but TransAfrica is not enough. Take away the domestic policy agenda -- as it has been -- and the Congressional Black Caucus flounders in confusion.
"One of the problems is that the establishment in this country prescribes the range of competence of black Americans," says Ntalaja Nzongola, an associate professor of African studies at Howard University. "Remember in the 1960s, when Martin Luther King began speaking out against the war in Vietnam, he was criticized because he was only supposed to talk about civil rights. When Jesse Jackson began speaking out on foreign affairs, people said he was in over his head."
"People don't make history; history makes people," says Jean Sindab, director of the Washington Office on Africa. "Allan Boesak speaks of a 'fire in the bellies' of the black South Africans. As black Americans, we no longer have that fire."
But just because segregation, as we knew it before 1954, has ended, that does not appear to be a reason for blacks to fade into the background of American policy making, especially on foreign affairs.
Part of the problem is obviously education. Listen to Nzongola again:
"I was hospitalized last October and an intern asked me if Zaire was a central African country or an equatorial African country," he recalled. "When I told her they were the same thing, she apologized by saying, 'You know, professor, we don't learn a whole lot of geography in this country.' "
For black Americans, confronting international issues head-on can be painful. We don't want to come across as un-American, but there is no denying our links to the Third World. Ask any black Vietnam veteran whose life was spared by the Vietcong because he was black, or the first hostages released from Iran because they were black, or Robert Goodman, who was released by the Syrians because he was black.
This can be weird and confusing.
Why, some wonder, can blacks be mobilized to march against apartheid in South Africa, yet cannot take a stand on human rights violations in Ethiopia?
Andrew Young's tenure as ambassador to the United Nations was a breakthrough of sorts. At least, blacks began thinking of establishing links with African and Caribbean countries that went beyond marketing Afro Sheen and Curly Kits abroad.
With visits to the United States by the Tutus and Boesaks, we are beginning to get a better understanding of how we fit in. But the question remains as to why we cannot produce our own thinkers to guide us.