Keith Richburg


The following are letters to the editor regarding Post correspondent Keith Richburg's piece, "
Continental Divide: American in Africa," that ran in the March 26, 1995, edition of The Washington Post Magazine.

Sunday, May 21, 1995; Page W03

MUCH MORE THAN A DESCRIPTION OF THE discomfort he felt during his three-year stay in Africa, Keith Richburg's article {"American in Africa," March 26} is an appalling confession of his insecurity with who he is: an American whose ancestors were taken by force from Africa and brought here as slaves.

Mr. Richburg professes his deep gratitude for this act of "grace," which he feels gives him the right to say: Thank God I'm not one of those Africans. Instead, he can act the part of the superior American. After all, only the strong and deserving ones, like his ancestors, survived the ordeal (apparently so they could then look down their noses at anyone they deemed less worthy than themselves).

Mr. Richburg needs to understand that the violence of slavery, for which he is so selfishly grateful, is only one of the many interventions by Western European, U.S. and Soviet governments that have helped to create the conditions he so eloquently and contemptuously describes. And yes, Africans bear some of the blame. But as current events in the former Yugoslavia show, there is nothing intrinsically black or African about the destructive consequences of ethnic rivalries fueled by the struggle over scarce resources and by superpower politics.

Being comfortable in one's skin means accepting everything that comes with it. Germans have to live with their history as instigators of World War II and with the association with genocide. As blacks, we have to accept our past -- as victims, and in some cases as co-perpetrators, of slavery. And we have to accept the discomfiting present -- with poverty, racism, ethnic rivalries (and also hope) in Africa. Mr. Richburg prefers to run away.

WHEN I READ THE ARTICLE BY KEITH Richburg, I was filled with sadness. Certainly having to observe a war is difficult, but the conflict within the writer seemed more insidious because he carries that conflict with him. When one writes about Africa, I think of the story of three blind men describing an elephant. Your perspective depends on which part of the animal you are touching.

KEITH RICHBURG IS OBVIOUSLY A journalist of great integrity and honor. As a black American who traveled to Africa in search of his roots, it must have been very painful for him to write so candidly about the broken dreams he encountered. It often seems that in America today we are still more divided along racial lines than we are united. Therefore to have a black man reveal so clearly the racial problems he found in the "homeland" takes a tremendous amount of courage.

Mr. Richburg asks if we would judge him and find him to be "a cynic, an Africa-basher . . . a racist . . . or at least a self-hating black man who has forgotten his African roots." No, Mr. Richburg, I believe you are daring and bold. A man of your honesty has no cause to feel self-hatred -- perhaps only a deep sense of regret that the truth, while it may set us free, is not always beautiful or easy to face.
Nokesville, Va.

AS A BLACK AMERICAN REPORTER WHO has covered Africa for various agencies for more than 20 years, I understand well Keith Richburg's revulsion and anger in places like Somalia or Zaire. But his is a facile analysis, the catechism of corruption and social illness that is all the rage in discussion of Africa today. He links being American with being outraged at the savagery he has witnessed. The "simple and irrefutable truth" of being a black man born in America has absolutely nothing to do with being glad you are not one of the butchered in Rwanda or Somalia. Most Africans feel that way, too, and do not keep it secret. After all, Africa is a continent almost 3 1/2 times the size of the United States containing 54 nations, and most of it is not engulfed by such brutality. Most Africans don't want to make it out either, just as I don't want to make it out of D.C. despite the growth of violence and political incompetence here. It is home, after all.

We're journalists. In places like Somalia, Liberia or the West Bank, for that matter, violence can swirl up suddenly and dangerously for unforeseen and unpredictable reasons. We expect that. I do, anyway. The stories of narrow escapes in Africa and elsewhere can hardly be defined by race. Nor does race make much professional difference. Like officials everywhere, the African politicians we cover are primarily interested in whether the agencies we write or broadcast for command the attention of powerful ears.

At the personal level, being a black American almost certainly matters. Is there any black reporter who has been in Africa with a pack of white reporters who has not been angered at some remark that borders or has crossed the border of racist contempt? How and with whom we socialize in downtime can also be different, not to mention what registers as familiar. Like a dance step I saw in a Zaire nightclub that I swore was the boogaloo but wasn't.

Finally, many, and not only journalists, criticize the way Africa is covered: too few reporters in general, then huge squads all concentrating on the same terrible conflicts. But that's not an issue of Pan-African political correctness. Anyone who knows news knows it is defined as much by what is left out as by what goes in. I would like to see more in when it comes to Africa. Does that make me a politically correct Pan-African apologist? I can live with that.

KEITH RICHBURG'S ARTICLE REMINDS ME of articles I read during the 18 years my family lived in eastern and southern Africa, written by African journalists about America. In these pieces, materialism, racism and crime were often portrayed as defining characteristics of American society. Yes, poverty, violence and greed exist in Africa. But Africa is also a continent of dignity, humanity and great beauty. The vast majority of Africans are decent, hard-working people who live in relative harmony.

It is a shame, however predictable, that Mr. Richburg was blinded to this while chasing wars and political upheaval. It's also a shame that he discounts the suffering that black people, including his own ancestors, endured to secure him his cherished American nationality. His thoughts as he watches bodies float down a Rwandan river are, "There but for the grace of God go I." I doubt very much that God's grace was the moving force behind slavery.

KEITH RICHBURG IS CERTAINLY RIGHT TO condemn apologists for brutal, undemocratic regimes in Africa. His tale of African Americans excusing the bloodletting in Sudan was particularly chilling. And clearly no one, whether he be in south-central Los Angeles or Lagos, wants to feel vulnerable to random beatings or death by authorities or rival gangs. But for Richburg to say, "There but for the grace of God go I," when faced with modern Africa is for him to miss at least half the tragedy of the slave trade. No one knows what Africa would be like today without the consecutive calamities of slavery and colonialism. Massive loss of human capital, distorted political economies and randomly artificial nation-states are just part of the legacy.

HARK! IS THAT THE VOICE OF REASON I hear? Is truth in? How brave of Keith Richburg to think or write or tell anything not shaved and carved and whitewashed to fit current demands for acceptance. PAT BUYSSE Gettysburg, Pa.

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE MORE poignant than Keith Richburg's realization that his relatively safe and prosperous existence as a black American, compared with the miserable lot of so many of his brothers caught in the "countless ongoing civil wars or tribal clashes" that characterize the "brutal continent" of Africa, is, ironically and perversely, the result of a faceless ancestor having been forcefully transported to these shores by an equally anonymous slave trader? Easy. It is the likelihood that the emotion of Mr. Richburg's candid prose will be distorted by some of our elected representatives into an argument that affirmative action programs were never justified as a means toward undoing the effects of slavery, an institution whose legacy, we will no doubt hear, has been unfairly maligned.

KEITH RICHBURG'S ARTICLE WAS SURPRISING in its omission of a central point. The Africa he traverses today is the result of antithetical (read: white, Western) social, political and cultural forces being forced upon and eventually obliterating the indigenous social, political and cultural controls, and then disappearing. The horrors of modern Africa are not necessarily "indigenous" to Africa. They are the frightful result of the importation of Western culture, which, when poorly stirred with the indigenous, formed the noxious cocktail that Africans must now drink.

Even if this were not the case, Mr. Richburg's racially motivated internalization of Africa's misfortunes would still seem to be so much solipsism (like the black Pan Africanism he rightly criticizes). He should beware. Solipsism is a fatal disease in a journalist.
Los Angeles

AS MR. RICHBURG WAS THANKFUL THAT his distant ancestor was brought to this country (albeit as a slave), I'm also glad that my father left Yugoslavia and arrived in the United States in 1939 to start a new life. Had he remained in Yugoslavia, I could easily now be dead in Sarajevo or be a soldier in a paramilitary force trying to kill Serbians.

KEITH RICHBURG TELLS US THAT HE HAS lived in Africa. I have lived there, too, not as a reporter but first as a schoolteacher in Ivory Coast and later as a development project administrator in Sierra Leone. I have no romantic illusions about Africa, but I can say without hesitation that those years were some of the best in my life.

Living as a black person in this country can be a complex and sometimes painful experience, and I am not sure whether we African Americans will ever find any final answers to the complex questions posed by our dual identity. In the meantime, we need to come together with other people of goodwill to try to use some of the vast resources of our country to help cure sick children, enable villagers to feed themselves, and assist in the growing process of democratization in Africa.

I, TOO, AM FIERCELY PROUD TO BE AN American and count myself lucky to be in Africa to experience the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Benin's nascent democracy. The prognosis for this continent is not always good, but because I have seen and lived in a country that is "doing it right," I take comfort in the knowledge that for every Somalia there is a South Africa and for every Rwanda there is a Benin.
U.S. ambassador to Benin, Cotonou, Benin

I AM NOT GLAD THAT MY ANCESTORS began their lives here as slaves, but I am very glad that after the Emancipation Proclamation they valued their citizenship so much that they said, "My country, right or wrong," rather than flee to Africa. I have never believed that black Americans would have a better life there, even when I was young and racial discrimination was at its worst.

Some black Americans may say that Mr. Richburg and other black Americans who agree with him have forgotten whence they came. I would say it's the other way around.

I FOUND KEITH B. RICHBURG'S testimony to his black American experience in Africa to be painfully honest. For far too long black American leaders have blindly praised the horrific dictatorships of Africa. I hope Richburg's story will awaken these defenders and lead them to the realization that the "motherland" is not always nurturing of its own.
Falls Church

MR. RICHBURG, I APPLAUD YOUR decision to make a strong, informed and objective statement concerning the state of our homeland. How much longer can Americans of African descent continue to perpetuate the "everything is wonderful" attitude, or to beat the dead horse of colonialism, while turning a blind eye to brutal and corrupt black tyrants who are in power in so many African nations? While we posture in politically correct wordplay, our cousins in Africa are dying by the dump-truck loads, and that is reality.
Silver Spring

NO, MR. RICHBURG, YOU ARE NOT A racist. Nor are you a "self-hating black man who has forgotten his African roots." Your powerful and moving account of covering Africa as an American journalist demonstrates the utter futility of defining ourselves and our policies in terms of such ultimately inconsequential factors as the color of one's skin or the points on the globe where one's ancestors happened to have been born.

It is necessary and important for people to feel a sense of kinship and belonging. But on what basis? Is sharing the same skin color or common ancestral home sufficient reason to turn a blind eye, or worse yet, excuse loathsome behavior? Is it helpful to those who have been or continue to be discriminated against? Or to those who practice such discrimination?

How much better off we would be if this sense of kinship were based on an appreciation of each one's individuality, shared values and the actions that demonstrate those values, rather than on superficial characteristics.

KEITH RICHBURG'S ARTICLE IS THE most thought-provoking piece that I have read in many years. I hope it will make many Americans reconsider their premise that black attitudes are the direct result of the African heritage of black Americans. To add adjectives such as "African," "Irish," "Italian," etc. in an attempt to further describe "Americans" just polarizes this country. Richburg's final sentence, "But by an accident of birth, I am a black man born in America, and everything I am today -- culture, attitudes, sensitivities, loves and desires -- derives from that one and simple irrefutable fact," adequately sums up the message of this article. The sooner we adhere to this fact, the sooner will we be able to eliminate the word "racism" from our vocabulary.

I DON'T KNOW WHAT ANGERED ME more: the way Keith Richburg sloughed over the positive attributes of the people he met, or the way he so enthusiastically emphasized the horrors of war and famine. His empathy for Africa's pain was wasted. If he were to define America exclusively by the crime and violence in the big cities, poverty in the South, or perversion and abuse that permeate his home town and mine, the impression readers would get would be as lopsided and distorted as the picture he paints in his article.
Brooklyn, N.Y.

MORE THAN FIVE YEARS OF POLITICAL exile in the United States has forced home more truths than I could have imagined when I fled my country, Nigeria, in 1990 at the peak of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida's repressive dictatorship. I used to easily express stigmatic opposition to criticism of my race, continent and country. That was then.

Today, I've been cured of that malady. What is praiseworthy in the rape, plunder and destruction of an abundantly rich continent and people by their own kith and kin? Who in his right mind would wish to identify with the evil that corrupt, insensitive home rule has imposed on Africa?

Keith Richburg has never disparaged Africa. Neither has he disowned the people nor renounced his blackness. His lamentations for the land of his ancestors must be seen for what they truly are: commendable efforts on his part to distance himself from the black people in this country (including some native-born Africans) who lack the moral courage to look a little beyond race when it comes to the shameful shortcomings of the continent.

AFRICA IS NO EASY PLACE TO LOVE OR know. But if you love her, you will come to know her: The opportunity to understand the human spirit's dogged determination to survive and be free is everywhere evident in Africa. I had the privilege of observing that phenomenon while monitoring elections in Nigeria for the last two years. If I learned anything during that time, it is that we must not turn our backs on oppression, no matter the continent or the color of the oppressors. The evil of keeping a population ignorant, hungry and ethnically divided must be condemned. And African Americans must scream louder than others in this condemnation of atrocities on the continent because we will always be taken (not mistaken) for Africans, as we are her children. This fact is a gift, not a curse. I believe sincerely that the challenge of the children of the diaspora and the survivors of slavery is to bridge our worlds and make of that tragedy a future of promise. I can only exist harmoniously with white America by understanding that the African slave trade, which led to my becoming an American, bestowed on me advantages that I can use to reconnect with Africa. We still have much to learn from and to give to Africa and her people.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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