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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
    unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments
    are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

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
    float past me.  Sometimes they came one by one. Sometimes two or three together. They were bloated now, horribly
    discoloured. Most were naked, or stripped down to their underpants. Sometimes the hands and feet were bound together.
    Some were clearly missing some limbs. And as they went over the falls, a few got stuck together on a little crag,
    and stayed there flapping against the current, as though they were trying to break free. I couldn't take my eyes off one
    of them, the body of a little baby.

    We timed them: a body or two every minute. And the Tanzanian border guards told us it had been like that for a couple
    of days now. These were the victims of the ethnic genocide going on across the border in Rwanda. The killers were working
    too fast to allow for proper burials. It was easier to dump the corpses into the Kagera River, to let them float downstream
    into Tanzania, eventually into Lake Victoria, out of sight, and I suppose out of mind. Or maybe there was some mythic
    proportion to it as well. These victims were from the Tutsi tribe, descendants, they say, of the Nile, and more resembling
    the Nilotic peoples of North Africa with their narrower noses, more angular features.  The Hutu, the ones conducting this
    final solution, were Bantu people, shorter, darker, and tired of being lorded over by the Tutsi. Maybe tossing the bodies into
    the river was the Hutus' way of sending them back to the Nile.

or this :

    What I...noticed were the weapons--crude farming tools, really.  Machetes and long panga knives, more typically used for
    clearing brush and chopping firewood than for severing human limbs.  There were also clubs.  Big, flat wooden clubs,
    smaller at the handle end and rounded at the top.  They reminded me of the all purpose clubs Fred Flintstone and Barney
    Rubble used to carry in the old TV cartoon.  But with one small difference: To make the clubs more deadly on impact, the
    Hutu militiamen drove long nails into the end.  That's what Rwanda has become, I thought.  The country has reverted to
    prehistoric times, to a kind of sick version of Bedrock.  And could these be fully evolved humans carrying clubs and machetes
    and panga knives and smashing in their neighbors' skulls and chopping off their limbs, and piling up the legs in one pile,
    and the arms in another, and lumping the bodies all together and sometimes forcing new victims to sit atop the heap while
    they clubbed them to death too?  No, I realized, fully evolved human beings in the twentieth century don't do things like that.
    Not for any reason, not tribe, not religion, not territory.  These must be cavemen.

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.
    He was shackled in leg irons, kept in a holding pen or a dark pit, possibly at Goree Island off the coast of Senegal. And then
    he was put in the crowded, filthy, hold of a ship for the long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic to the New World.

    Many slaves died on that voyage. But not my ancestor. Maybe it was because he was strong, maybe just stubborn, or maybe
    he had an irrepressible will to live. But he survived, and ended up in forced slavery working on plantations in the Caribbean.
    Generations on down the line, one of his descendants was taken to South Carolina. Finally, a more recent descendant, my father,
    moved to Detroit to find a job in an auto plant during the Second World War.

    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,
    birthplace of my ancestors, standing at the edge of a river not as an African but as an American journalist - a mere spectator -
    watching the bloated bodies of black Africans cascading over a waterfall. And that's when I thought about how, if things had
    been different, I might have been one of them -or might have met some similarly anonymous fate in one of the countless ongoing
    civil wars or tribal clashes on this brutal continent. And so I thank God my ancestor survived that voyage.


    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.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -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 (
    -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,
    -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 (
    -REVIEW : of Out of America (AfricaNews)
    -REVIEW : of Out of America (Valentine Udoh James,  Southern University)

    -The African American Journey (PBS)
    -Black Issues Book Review
    -Declaration Foundation : Restoring America
    -Issues & Views :  newsletter was founded in 1985 by black Americans who advocate self-help and business enterprise and the protection of constitutional rights
    -Slave Routes : The Long Memory (NYU slavery conference)
    -John Henrik Clarke Africana Library (Cornell University)
    -African American History Month: February 1-28 : A product of the U.S. Census Bureau's Public Information Office (John Henrik Clarke Africana Library, Cornell University)
    -ESSAY : Rape, robbery and anguish in the new South Africa : I was arrested for fighting apartheid, but what good is freedom if rampant violence terrorizes blacks and whites alike? (JENEFER SHUTE, March 28, 2000, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Where Angels Fear to Tread : Sierra Leone, The Last Clinton Betrayal (Ryan Lizza, 7/13/00, New Republic)
    -ESSAY : When they Were Kings (Martin Peretz, 6/16/97, New Republic)
    -ESSAY : Expose mass graves in Somaliland (JOHN KAMAU, Hiiraan Online)
    -ESSAY :  Bill Clinton's African Adventure (Mona Charen, April 1, 1998, Jewish World Review)
    -ESSAY : Pitfalls Of The Liberian Economy:  What Is Liberia's Choice of Economic Management? (Sumowuoi Pewu, The Perspective)
    -ESSAY : African Mess (William F. Buckley Jr., 3/7/97, National Review) Directory | South Africa : A complete listing of Salon articles on South Africa
    -REVIEW : of Kinship By Phillipe Wamba (Mark Mathabane, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The New Africa: Dispatches from a Changing Continent. Robert M. Press (Ken Menkhaus, Davidson College)
    -REVIEW : of Into the House of the Ancestors:  Inside the New Africa, by Karl Maier  (HOWARD W. FRENCH, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEWS : of  IN THE FOOTSTEPS  OF MR. KURTZ  Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo.   By Michela Wrong. and THE GRAVES ARE NOT YET FULL : Race, Tribe and Power  in the Heart of Africa.  By Bill Berkeley (Ian Fisher, NY Times Book Review)