I suppose that, if I chose to, I could call myself a Swedish-German-Russian-Scottish-English-American, yet I have never done so. I am an American. Period. And don't give me any grief about the Native Americans. When they had the continent to themselves it wasn't America. For America, more than any other nation that has ever existed, is bounded not by physical boundaries or a gene pool but by ideals. Race, ethnicity, situs of birth, religion, etc., are all meaningless when it comes to defining who is an American. To be an American, one need do no more than associate himself with this simple credo :
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all
men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
and accept that the way in which we have chosen to achieve these ends is through the Constitution, which is, therefore, binding upon all citizens of the United States. It's that easy, and that difficult : easy because it allows any person, no matter their background, their abilities, or their other beliefs to become an American; difficult because it presupposes certain things--belief in God; respect for the rights of others; acceptance of responsibility for oneself--that are all too rare in human history.
This is not, of course, to say that America has always realized these ideals. We have often fallen short, but the shortcomings have been ours; they have not been a function of the ideals themselves. The most important area in which we have failed to live up to these lofty standards has been in the area of race. Between the long history of slavery and the shorter but hardly less vile era of segregation, the major portion of the American polis refused to accept that a sizable minority was truly equal, was, in fact, entitled to be treated as possessors of unalienable rights. This had obviously catastrophic results for the minority, but it took its toll on the majority too--in divisive sectionalism; warfare; and cultural retardation. Much of the first two centuries of the American experiment consisted of the working out of this dysfunction. Racism remains a fact of life today, one that will always be with us because of the limitations of human nature, but it is to our great credit as a society that for the most part is no longer a permissible organizing principle in most facets of American life. There is, however, one great exception to this general rule, and that is the way in which we now countenance the organization of minority racial groups into distinct political tribes.
Keith B. Richburg's powerful book, Out of America, tells the moving story of a black American man who learned the hard way that he prefers to define himself as an American, a believer in those ideals enumerated above, than to define himself by his race. This realization was driven home during Mr. Richburg's event-filled and depressing tour of duty as the Africa correspondent for The Washington Post. During his tenure there he witnessed : the descent of Somalia into warlordism; the mass butchery of Tutsis in Rwanda by rival Hutus; the almost ludicrous murder rampages of bewigged young men in Liberia; the pandemic of AIDs across the continent; the rampant crime and violence in even the crown jewel of black Africa, South Africa; he saw all this and more, almost none of it edifying or giving any reason to hope for a brighter future. One theme ran through all these awful episodes; in every case the violence was a function of people defining themselves ethnically.
Africa is unfortunately not the product of a set of ideals. No country in Africa is really dedicated to the realization of a set of ideals. In Africa, we see writ large and bloody the bitter human harvest of tribalism. Let men define themselves by their tribe and here is what follows :
[T]here I was, drenched with sweat under the blistering
sun, standing at the Rusumo Falls bridge, watching the bodies
We timed them: a body or two every minute. And the
Tanzanian border guards told us it had been like that for a couple
or this :
What I...noticed were the weapons--crude farming
tools, really. Machetes and long panga knives, more typically used
And so, after three years of experiencing the continuing horror that is post-Colonial Africa, of seeing the dead, being threatened himself, having friends murdered, and seeing black Congressmen and Civil Rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Benjamin Chavis praise the African national leaders who condone this kind of violence against other Africans, who cling to power by any means necessary, who line their own pockets and those of their cronies while their people live in squalor, Mr. Richburg came to this jarring realization :
Sometime, maybe four hundred years ago, one of my
ancestors was taken from his village, probably by a local chieftain.
Many slaves died on that voyage. But not my ancestor.
Maybe it was because he was strong, maybe just stubborn, or maybe
And so it was that I came to be born in Detroit and
that 35 years later, a black man born in white America, I was in Africa,
Thank God my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them.
In short, thank God that I am an American.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Richburg has been roundly attacked, particularly by other blacks, for reaching this conclusion. It is not surprising, but it is disheartening. The same "racial solidarity" that demands that blacks be termed African Americans also requires African Americans to identify themselves as a political interest group with similar expectations and needs, and imposes a conspiracy of silence about the social problems that have done so much to destroy black communities and about the rather more profound pathologies that are keeping Africa unstable, ungovernable, underdeveloped, and unfree. It prevents American blacks from being able to provide Africa with genuine assistance. Trapped in a, thankfully less destructive, racial politics of their own, they look to Africa for its blackness, instead of bringing to it their own Americaness. For so long as Africa remains defined by the color of people's skin and the tribes of their fathers, it will remain a disaster area. Only when Africans too decide to organize themselves around a set of ideals that are more elevated than pigment or gene--ideals like freedom, human dignity, peaceful competition, government by consent of the governed, and the like--will there be hope for Africa's future. And only when African Americans accept that the first part of that appellation is an immutable and relatively meaningless reference to ethnicity, while the second part, if embraced, makes them an integral and equal part of a bold and generally successful experiment in open and inclusive government of and by all the people, will we have any prospect of putting our long, ugly, and unfortunate history of divisive racial politics behind us.
I too thank God that Mr. Richburg's ancestor survived his voyage, though we must lament the manner in which he was brought here and the way in which he and his heirs were treated, and I too thank God that Mr. Richburg is an American. Mr. Richburg and I belong to the same tribe, the American tribe, and it is open to anyone who shares our ideals, regardless of race, creed, or color.
-BOOKNOTES : Keith Richburg speaks about his book Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (C-SPAN, April 6, 1997)
-EXCERPT : `Thank God my ancestor got out' (Weekly Mail & Guardian)
-EXCERPT : from Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (Capitalism)
-ARTICLE : Shoe-Bomb Suspect's Itinerary : Israel and Egypt Among Stops Cited (Keith B. Richburg and Dan Eggen, December 28, 2001, Washington Post)
-ARTICLE : Taliban Flees Afghan Capital : Retreat Follows Rebel Victories Across North (Keith B. Richburg and Molly Moore, November 13, 2001, Washington Post)
-ARTICLE : At Spain's Gate, Africans Dream of Europe (Keith B. Richburg, March 28, 2001, Washington Post)
-ARTICLE : Israelis Confirm Wider Policy of Assassinations : Palestinian Peace Activist Among Targeted Victims (Keith B. Richburg, January 8, 2001, Washington Post)
-ARTICLE : Across Asia, Stirrings of Democracy : Stirrings Cast Doubt on Asians' Fabled Indifference to Democracy (Keith B. Richburg, December 16, 1997, Washington Post)
-ARTICLE : Indonesian General Warns Any Rioters Will Be Shot (Keith B. Richburg, 31 July 1996, The Washington Post)
-INTERVIEW : REJECTING ROOTS : In his recent book, Out of America, Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg talks about the negative view of Africa that he developed in his three-and-a-half years reporting there. His experiences covering civil wars and upheaval in countries like Somalia, Nigeria and Rwanda led him to re-evaluate his feelings about being an American of African descent. He debates the points of his book with Salih Booker of The Council on Foreign Relations. (Online Newshour, MARCH 5, 1997)
-AUDIO DISCUSSION : An African-American Perspective On Africa : with Keith Richburg, Eddy L. Harris, and Jill Jupiter Jones (NPR Talk of the Nation, 3/5/97)
-PROFILE : REJECTING AFRICA : Author argues that slavery was ultimately good for African-Americans (Amy Sundberg, NYU's Institute for African-American Affairs)
-ESSAY : OUT OF AMERICA DENIED : A Critique of the book OUT OF AMERICA (E. Ablorh-Odjidja, November 25, 2001, Profile Africa)
-ESSAY : Revisitation (Harry B. Dunbar, dunbar on Black Books)
-ESSAY : Keith Richburg and Africa (email@example.com)
-ESSAY : Who's Listening? : Brothers on a Soapbox. (Ralph Wiley, July 2000, Black Issues Book Review)
-ARCHIVES : "out of america" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (WILLIAM FINNEGAN, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (Thomas Sowell, Hoover Digest)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (JONATHAN BRODER, Salon)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (Christopher M. Gray, Orbis)
-REVIEW : of Out of America and Not Out of Africa by Mary Lefkowitz (Laurence M. Vance, Ideas on Liberty)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (Elaine Phillips, Nashville Scene)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (Ken Layne, Tabloid.net)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (JOSEPH HARKER , South Africa Mail & Guardian)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (Ronald Suresh Roberts, Weekly Mail & Guardian)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (Darcus Howe, New Statesman)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (AYELE BEKERIE, PHD, Africa Notes)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (Wolf Roder, Journal of African Travel-Writing)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (asante.net)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (AfricaNews)
-REVIEW : of Out of America (Valentine Udoh James, Southern University)
I have just read the book out of America and must say i enjoyed the frank and honest way that all the facts and feelings were recorded.Being a "white African" and having traveled through out Africa ( as well as Europe and the east)i have often felt the need to record what i have seen and experienced,but have always been afraid to do so as i would of been called a racist! South Africa has just completed ten years of democracy and all we can say is thank God for Mandela.The current goverment of Thabo Mbeki also reverts to the race card every time an issue is raised by the opposition,and frankly it is a weak option.One has only to look north at Mad Bob to see that African leaders do not give a damm for the lives of the african people!!!!
- John J Rosser
- Dec-29-2004, 15:07
My name is Sarah Udoh and I am black, African and I live in Europe. I must say that much as I appreciate Mr Richburg's feeling of the necessity to expunge his mind of 'the horrors' experienced by him in Africa - through the therapeutic method of transfering those images on pages of sheets, I find his idea (and they are ideas which I have come to associate with most black Americans) that the enslavement of his ancestors, and all other Black Americans during the slavery period was sanctioned and done entirely by the their fellow black brothers, of the time.
I have heard these and similars thoughts on many occasion. Perhaps, if Mr Richburg could BOTHER to read the real Africa history books about the slavery era, rather than the ones pushed out in a propaganda bid to 'whitewash' the American side of the historical event (as they have done with the American Indians history), it would aid him a bit in understanding what actually happened in during that era. For a start doesn't Mr Richburg understand that his ancestors were sons and daughters of mothers and fathers, not to talk of cousins, aunts - and the list goes on - who wept for the sudden disappearance of their children, niece and nephews?
I would like to ask Mr Richburg some questions , which I honestly hope he would provide the answers. During the slavery era in America, it is a well-known fact that some of the slave owners, to try to satisfy their insatiable appetite for cruelty, would ask a slave to wipp another slave, failing which, he was himself wipped and sometimes killed? Does Mr Richburg think that those slave who wiped the other slaves enjoyed doing so? Can Mr Richburg even begin to imagine what it must been like for those African chieftains, he so despises and blame, to see death 'coming out of a piece wood' which is what the Africans, thought guns were, and simple folks that they were, believed the white slave traders to be gods whom, if they were able to perform , what the Africans thought of as, such wondrous magic, could also make them "disappear from the face of the earth and consign their spirit to the evil world"
Such thinking and a whole lot more, which in our modern day, we can comfortably sit in our living room in front of huge t.vs, and term as na•ve and mumbo jumbo, were common occurrence during that era.
Mr Richburg also failed to mentioned that the numerous cases of ethnic cricises suffered by Africans today, are the result of the unasked for meddling of past colonical masters, who saw fit, without asking the indigenes involved, to merged regions who had, absolutely nothing in common, into one country and regions. That is one of the root cause of the ethnic problems experienced in Africa, and even in other parts of the world (try Kashmir) I really can't go on, but I would, honestly appreciate Mr Richburg's answers to my questions.
It is all good and well to criticise the horrors of Africa, but perhaps, Mr Richburg in his 'best-selling' horror book on Africa, should have emphasize, in equal proportion, the bravery of those 'brave' Africans, whom he saw fit to only mention, in as little wordings as he possibly could in the prelude chapter of his book.
- Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner
- Feb-14-2004, 18:45
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