Out of America by Keith B. Richburg (Harvest/HBJ, 1998)

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/1/1999

The fact that the white media once again has glorified a book that is the direct results of the impact of white supremacy on an erstwhile victim shows the bizarre nature of racism in America. A black journalist, Keith Richburg, has written a book, Out of America, which is a sad testimony of an individual who is caught in the spiral of psychic pain produced by what Frantz Fanon and Robert C. Smith call "internal inferiorization." Richburg sees Africans as his enemies and this is the beginning of his problem. From this vantage point there is nothing good that can be said about Africa or Africans. Reiterating the same political, social, and economc problems that have been articulated by many thoughtful commentators on the African scene, Richburg goes further to make the African condition his personal responsibility. One only has to think how this would play if the person who was condemning a society was a German, an Israeli, a Pole, a Britisher, a Chinese, an Iraqi, or Japanese. Would other people really be so hard on the continent or people of their origin? Wouldn't there at least be some sense of historical depth, some attempt to understand the basis of human actions? I think so but then the author of this book seeks to have another mission: the popularizing of the litany of evils in Africa. One could do this about any continent and indeed any nation, but what is the point?

Richburg who was a correspondent and Bureau Chief for the Washington Post in Africa for three years has indicted the entire continent for the bad times he had there. In fact, his book raises numerous questions about the objectivity of the despatches he sent to Washington from his post. The book is a diatribe against Africa and much like the books of the African American conservatives during the Reagan years attempts to show that he is big enough to be critical of black people. The only problem with that is the axe he has to grind has been over used. You cannot get too much mileage out of such an activity among people who know Africa. They also know the historical roots of many of the problems Richburg cites. If there ever was a reason for journalists who report from Africa or who write of African Americans to take courses in African American Studies, Richburg has given the best reason. He has written a superficial headline grabbing attack on the African continent and many of us who have lived, studied, and travelled in Africa find his book offensive and obscene.

Richburg has not written a meaningful book; he has written a book for the white mass market and because of that he is at once intent on explaining that he is happy to have had an ancestor on the slave ship. His intellectual position is duplicitous in that he does not identify with what he saw in Africa but at the same time calls into question the history made by African Americans. He neither likes continental Africans nor African Americans who are happy being of African origins. Indeed, he sought out African Americans at the Gabon Summit organized by Reverend Leon Sullivan to criticize-Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and others- in an effort to ridicule the leadership of the African American delegation. So if he does not identify with the continental Africans and hates the historical opposition of Africans in America against white supremacy, what are we to make of Mr. Richburg?

I imagine the internal inferiorization that insinuates itself over and over again in the African American mind and must be expelled by intellectual and psychological exercises has burden Richburg with second class status. He cannot see the agency of Africa; he only sees it in the margins. This means that he cannot appreciate that his views are aberrations of the facts, illusions of the real, and charades of the thick undercurrents of African life. But Richburg has neither availed himself of the antidotes to racial self hatred nor to history which might have saved him the terror he felt about Africa and his own Africanity.

Richburg's book, coming as it does on the heels of The End of Racism,The Bell Curve, Not Out of Africa and of a similar spirit as those works is simply one more attempt to confuse the white masses and to subdue African American opinion on matters that affect Africans. The first might be achieved if one goes by the sales of the book, but the later will not be achieved because the African American community is thoroughly capable of seeing through the anti-African rhetoric of this book. But alas, the book is not written to either educate or impress African Americans. Richburg is clearly out to salvage Africa by any means necessary.

Keith Richburg makes two specific errors: Africans do not kill each other and Africans are not susceptible to political corruption. That is, his arguments tend to turn on these assumptions although he is clearly convinced that Africans have killed and have been corrupted to an extraordinary degree. But his pain, if one can call it that, when he sees the killing and the corruption is irreal. He denies to Africans what he gives to white Americans and Europeans: humanity. Why should he expect that Africans given a set of social and political circumstances should be different from other humans? Had he beguiled himself in believing a racist lie that Africans were somehow better than Europeans or white Americans? The logic of his thinking is racist.

But how can Richburg feel superior to Africans whom he confronts in the rawness of their ordinariness when he does not confront the same ordinariness in either white or black Americans? I mean does Richburg understand anything at all about the historical events that unfolded right here on this land? Has he not been taught somewhere of the absolute slaughter of the indigenous people who fought to defend what was theirs? Does he know anything about the enslavement and murder of African people over a 250 year period and has he not learned about the Red Summer of 1919? Obviously not because had he understood something of the history of this country he would not have been so happy to declare that he was grateful that his ancestor was a slave.

Even more, Mr. Richburg only has to read his own newspaper and others to get a steady diet of African Americans in the United States killing each other at a phenomenal rate and often with callousness equal to what he saw among continental Africans. Yet he does not want to abdicate his position as an American despite the brutality that has been served up repeatedly on the richly endowed American table.

This is not a serious book and it will have a short shelf life because of its negative cast. There is no attempt in this work to understand Africa, simply a reporter's notebook of the things he disliked during his "exile" to the land of his ancestors. Unlike even some white reporters who have lived and worked in Africa, Richburg sees nothing that grabs him and all that repels him. Perhaps he will do better with his book about Hong Kong and the Chinese, but given his record on Africa, his continent of ancestral origin, I am not holding my breath.

African symbol