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"Out of America" is not about journalism. It is about moral judgment. Richburg has

seen Africa, and walks away disenchanted: The slaughter of Africans by Africans,

the anarchy, the corruption, and the bizarre tribal politics are all too much for him.



Out of America Denied
A Critique of the book Out of America

By E. Ablorh-Odjidja


Perhaps, it is not by coincidence that this book is titled "Out Of America", and it is equally not by accident that I feel compelled to critique it. The writer, Keith B. Richburg, is African American and I am African. We both shared a common ancestry until this book. The book is based on Richburg's experience in Africa, between 1991 and 1994, covering the war in Somalia and Rwanda as a reporter for the Washington Post.   

Richburg's account is riveting, provocative and sad. Just as we think we have seen enough carnage in Somalia, we turn a page to meet more in Rwanda. The stories become more depressing even from areas not touched by war. In the end, his travels in Africa become an extraordinary journey of discovery for him. He has come to Africa naive about what to expect, and returns completely discontented, at least so he says.

But for the theme of an African American rejecting his ancestry, this book would have stirred modest commercial interest. The stories of Somalia and Rwanda have already gained worldwide press notoriety. And the cyclical epidemics of disease and starvation on the continent have long since become the public face of Africa, years before the publication of this book, and unfortunately may continue to be the case for years to come. The difference, however, is that for the first time in recent memory, and in bold print, an African American turns his back on mother Africa! 

The book "Out of America" is not about journalism. It is about moral judgment. Richburg has seen Africa, and walks away disenchanted: The slaughter of Africans by Africans, the anarchy, the corruption, and the bizarre tribal politics are all too much for him. "Thank God" he concludes "that my nameless ancestor, brought across the ocean in leg irons, made it out alive."   

Richburg must be commended for the brutal honesty of his appraisal. He also deserves an award for the avoidance of the brotherly orthodoxy trap that allows praise for all things African; saints, dictators and miscreants and all.   

True, his insight about the problem in Africa, "what is happening in Africa isn't about food.... it is about power and control in a country where security has broken down" is good and on the mark. His description of military thugs "who take power and thwart the continent's fledging efforts to move towards democracy" cannot be stated better.

Absolutely, there is something wrong about governance in Africa. It must be condemned. And Richburg has done that well. But must he reject his ancestry too? Certainly not.

No matter how heavy the burden of life in Africa is today, one must not allow that to give slavery respect. Unfortunately, Richburg jumps over reason to do so.   

The Africa of Richburg's experience is one of turmoil, and the logic of turmoil is chaos. No excuse intended here. But, not to recognize that the continent has also been shaped by other influences, in addition to those of her own, is to over extend the arrant nature of some clowns on the continent. Furthermore, to conclude, as he does, that slavery has proven to be a redeeming factor, because of the mess in Africa now, is despicable.

Why was Richburg asked by the Washington Post to go to Africa? Obviously, he is a competent reporter. But at the time of the offer he seemed very little prepared for Africa.   

For briefing and inspiration for the trip, he had to travel to Thailand to seek out Kevin Cooney, "a big, hard-drinking Irish American reporter ...who had spent several months working in the Reuter office in Nairobi." -- almost like a character conjured up from the movie "African Queen".

The Africanists, whose counsel Richburg sought, were only acknowledged as an after- thought. The opinion of his alma mater, the University of Michigan, "where prominent black professors taught, including Dr. Ali Mazrui, perhaps the best-known African scholar in the West," was never invited. Obviously, Richburg's preliminary preparation does not show much affection for the subject Africa.

In Kenya, Nairobi, when Richburg meets Africa, his first remark is to ask "What's that smell?" Other writers, like Robert Klitzgaard who wrote "Tropical Gangsters" about Equatorial Guinea, have been more circumspect, though equally critical. The wonder is how Richburg can miss all else on a first day in a strange land. The exotic, the new, even the layout of the land from miles up in the sky. For most writers, disenchantment sets in, if at all, only after the new has faded. But it is not to be for Richburg. He gets his right in the nose just moments after arrival.

Richburg's competence as a writer is obvious. Easy style. Strong narrative skills. However, his lack of previous attachment to Africa, emotional or intellectual, is also very evident. 

It is not as if he is a Marcus Garvey or a Du Bois before he sets foot in Africa. And on location at Goree, the last port for departing slaves in the past, and perhaps, the most haunting ground in the history of the Diaspora, he finds himself emotionally sterile. What then gives him the moral right to say, "Talk to me about Africa and my black roots and my kinship with my African brothers and I will throw it back in your face, and then I'll rub your nose in the images of the rotting flesh."? This outburst must raise some concern about motive. But note that in America the sensational sells.

This book must have attraction for some readers. To those who see Africa as the sinkhole of human existence, where the exigencies of life have more primordial and sinister meaning than any other place or time in human history, the above outburst gives a lot of comfort. And for this, regretfully, Africa must thank some of her arrant sons and daughters, including Richburg.

Richburg's rejection of his ancestral land confirms in the mind of the skeptic, the hopelessness of the black man's cause. True, there is carnage in Africa. And, there has been carnage in other areas of the world; Bosnia, Belfast, Cambodia, Rosewood, Lebanon, Auschwitz etc.  But, is there another writer, from any part of the world, who has rejected his ancestry in terms more vehement than Richburg?

By the time Richburg finishes his tour, slavery has gained a moral upgrade. "There but for the grace of God go I," he says. Along with the institution of slavery, he is ready to forgive the loss of life in the Second World War, the pogrom against Jews in Germany, and the explosion of the atomic bomb on Japan because of "mankind's ability to make something good arise often in the aftermath of the most horrible evil." But he has no such charity for Africa. He will deny Africa the capacity for self correction. He would strip Africa bare of goodness and leave it as a place where the forces of evil always triumph over those of good.

Richburg's conclusion is divisive. His us (African American) versus them (African) interpretation of the story of the slave trade does not factor in the sense of our shared tragedy, our loss, and what should be our resolve because of this tragic period in our history. And this is wrong.

Collectively, Africans warred, and pillaged against each other, collected prisoners, and, senselessly, allowed many members of the continent to be taken out of Africa; very ignorant about the cruelties that awaited these sons and daughters.   

Slavery was not selective, and not by progeny either as to who went and who was left behind. The fog of war or raid did not allow this luxury. That Richburg is in America and Idi Amin remained in Africa is sheer coincidence. Turn it around, and Idi Amin could have been born in Detroit, worked in an automobile factory as a Union leader, and perhaps, could have sired Richburg.  

The slave trade was the most horrific aspect of our history. We must not be divided by it. Never again.

For those who are ready to rebel against mother Africa because of Richburg's ill advised conclusion, I offer this African proverb: Chasing after a mad man in the streets, butt naked, can only serve as a sufficient commentary on one's own sanity.

For myself, I will read Earnest Gaines' "A Lesson Before Dying" again. It will help as a reminder of the obligation we owe each other, and also to help shelter my psyche against this type of assault on our common ancestry. 


E.  Ablorh-Odjidja: Graduate, Howard University, BA Communications 1973, and Columbia University, School of Fine Arts, MFA Film Arts 1976  Professional experience: Writer, producer/director GBC-TV and Freidrich Ebert Foundation in Ghana.  Has five documentaries films to his credit.  Has to date published numerous political commentaries on Africa and Africans in the Diaspora in periodicals in Europe and Africa.  He is the current publisher of    

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Maybe this sense of abandonment expressed by E. Ablorh-Odjidja in his article, "OUT OF AMERICA DENIED" is a good development in the stage of African and African-American relations. The Africans are beginning to get a sense of the feel that African Americans throughout the diaspora had on the boat to the Americas. So this might be a means for all of us to get on the same psycho-dramatic page, beyond the naive racial sentimentalism of the days of yore.

I am now reading a book containing George S. Schuyler's two novellas (first serialized by the Pittsburg Courier) with Ethiopia at the center of the story.  Schuyler was sent to the South as a reporter in the 30s and even in darkest Mississippi among the poorest and most ignorant of Negroes there was a deep feeling for the survival of Ethiopia against the Italian fascist onslaught.

And there were riots in Harlem and pitched battles between African Americans and Italian Americans in Jersey City with the conquest of Ethiopia as the backdrop. So yes there were widespread pan-african feelings among American Negroes long before most Africans had any sense of the term or the feeling. As you know, Pan-Africanism is a black western concept. So I do not think that it will ever be extinguished.

The problem presently is that since Africa, at least superficially, is free and there is so much pomp and circumstance with regards to its leaders, most African Americans do not know what to make of the situation in Africa today. And too many of those who come here isolate themselves in self-segregated communities and in that they are often middle class in their orientation they possess demeaning class attitudes toward the masses of Negroes. And they too often set themselves as competitors or an alternative to the homegrown product.

So it is difficult now to kindle up the spirit of racial solidarity that existed before the mid-70s. As Africa has become more concrete and specific, our feelings with regard to Africa have become more and more abstract, e.g., Kwanzaa and African-oriented festival-rituals staged by African Americans. But maybe all these are necessary phases to reach the practical respect and realistic and possible truly loving relationships among Africans and African Americans.

Though the Pan Africanism of yesterday is to some extent to be applauded, it too had, along with Garveyism, a paternalistic and missionary aspect to it, which sort of looked down on the tribal African as someone who needed to be taught how to be civilized. That was the tragedy of Liberia, which finally erupted into two decades of murderous civil war. Such notions like the "Joseph Project" too are just a minor phase. It is a good idea but maybe one ill-timed for the situation here in America becomes more desperate by the hour.

My suspicion there will be many hurdles to overcome in a Ghana that is also struggling with little or no ideological direction. It is looking for investment in a struggling economy and they are looking for help wherever they can get it, even American Negroes.

But as you must know, unless you have billions behind you, capital investments in an African country will bring few immediate returns unless you are willing to work hard at it and make real solid relationships with the people themselves. Then there are the laws there and the bribe-run bureaucracy. This requires tolerance, patience, and vision.

I know very few U.S. blacks with substantial capital who are willing to make such commitments. Most are in the acquisitive modes of luxurious living and impoverished Africa holds few glamorous attractions. Such are the twists and turns of history.—Rudy

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Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Three shorter essays respond: Stanford law professor Karlan examines prisoners as an inert ballast in redistricting and voting practices; French sociologist Wacquant argues that the focus on race has ignored the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people; and Harvard philosophy professor Shelby urges citizens to break with Washington's political outlook on race. The group's respectful sparring results in an insightful look at the conflicting theories of race and incarceration, and the slim volume keeps up the pace of the argument without being overwhelming.Publishers Weekly  / Economist Glenn Loury 

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By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Related files: The Joseph Principle Enacted  Disadvantaged by race, set back by language  OUT OF AMERICA DENIED A Critique  EPA Hobson's Choice