Thursday, March 9, 2006

Struggling to understand American race identity: Reading Richburg's Out of America

Just how do the words “African” and “American” come together to form a race identity in this country? What does a person mean when they claim to be an African American?

I must confess that this is not a topic with which I am intimately familiar--I might be called a Scottish-American, but only because of my last name and because it's the largest slice of my multi-European ethnicity. Still, a friend recommended a book to me which was immensely interesting and more than a little disturbing in many ways. The book, Keith Richburg's Out of America, is a "personal journey into African-American identity", a memoir of an African-American journalist's tour of duty in various countries in sub-Saharan (i.e., black) Africa.

As a memoir, the book is an intimate reflection on Richburg's experiences throughout black Africa and the struggle he had with finding roots of his identity there. As a correspondent in Somalia during the Blackhawk Down carnage, in Rwanda during the worst of the genocides there, and elsewhere in Kenya, Zaire, and South Africa, Richburg could find very little with which he could find commonality outside of brute DNA. Commonly mistaken for a native African (and consequently in great danger), Richburg would have to merely open his mouth and say five words to instantly reveal himself as an American. And, having seen the abyssal depths of corruption, totalitarianism, violence and utter disregard for human life (let alone human rights), Richburg concluded that he was much more American than he was African.

This is where I found the book to be most useful and revealing. Richburg struggled enormously with this tension of identity because of what it means to be a black man in America. For him, it meant to have experienced a kind of insipid and constant cultural alienation regardless of one's determination to rise above it. Richburg tells some darkly humorous stories of his childhood, the likes of which I cannot relate to at all. In one, he follows his white friend to a bank and forgets to take his hands out of his coat pockets and to remove his sunglasses once inside. The bank teller sees a black teenager following a white teenager into the bank and immediately hits the panic button, assuming the black to have a weapon in his coat with which he was forcing the white boy to withdraw money. A large police force arrives and the situation resolves peacefully, they laugh about it afterward, but it clearly left a mark on Richburg. The amazing fact is simply this: no matter what alienation a black man might feel growing up in America, it was infinitely preferable to the carnage and barbarism marking the cultures of Africa.

Again, to someone like me, all of this seems reasonable. What is the more difficult is the defensiveness with which he writes, conscious that such a preference of being American over being African carries with it a wholly different sort of cultural alienation--that of the liberal left, and specifically of black liberalism and the academy of African studies that is present at all of our major universities. For Richburg to embrace his American roots over his African is tantamount to siding with America's history of slavery and racial oppression. To illustrate the kind of hatred Richburg faces, read this quote from a review on Amazon from someone who did not read the book:
When I read the title of this book I could tell it was going to be negative. The previous reviews written by Africans need to first kick themselves for not putting a proper balance on the book's content. First of all, Africa has always been portrayed as a god-forsaken place and called the "Dark Continent" and the last thing it needs is to have a Black American attempt to corroborate this lie. HOW DARE this BLACK author have the nerve to demonize a continent without realizing that EVERY continent has its evils. And to add insult to injury, he even implied-oh strike that- STATED gratitude of his ancestors' slavery to America, as if thankful that they were brought from a barbaric land to a bright one when it was really the other way around! He might as well have supported antebellum pro-slavery arguments! And as far as being brought to a "civilized" country, AFRICANS MADE America civilized, with their skill, intellect and talent. Everyone's so ready to give accounts of African atrocity -of African war lords having mass killings, crooked presidents or tribal genocide - BUT WHERE OH WHERE is the corresponding EUROPEAN versions of massive crime?! For all of the white readers who have given this book a "good" rating they and the media always neglect to shine light on EUROPEAN drug lords, of EUROPEAN slavery, of EUROPEAN rape and genocide and of EUROPEAN government corruption. For every violence in Africa there is an equal version in Europe, Africa is no more dangerous than Europe. HOW DARE EVERYONE (who has written a review) support the continuation of painting this diverse, cradle of civilization as a horrific cesspool! The only reason why this bunk is highly rated is because of the narrow minded, socially predisposition-to-consider-Africa-negatively, brainwashed, white and-hold on to your seat- RACIST people who will of course support this jargon! The author is certainly an uncle tom who is having an identity crisis and is adding fuel to the fire of Eurocentrism. No, I have not read the book nor do I need to because I do not have to see the wind in order to know that is blows.
Wow. He didn’t even read the book.

After seeing Africa through Richburg's eyes, I am mystified by the currently fashionable idea that all cultures are equal. I can understand how Richburg might choose to root his own identity in the cultural traditions and values of America, taking the good while not minimizing the bad. The mystery that remains is why people would choose to revile Richburg as evil while at the same time celebrating the culture of Africa which produces and perpetuates ruthless dictators, totalitarian regimes, and nepotistic bureaucracies.


Tim Lewis said...

A perfect example of the irony of racism. It's only racism if you're white or agree with white people.

Even though it sounds like the book has nothing to do with race.

Jake Shore said...

This was one of the most important books I have ever read, but its not what you think. Critics of the book see it as some anti-black, anti-Africa political statement or as an expression of black self-hatred. Many fans of the book like it because it affirms their anger towards African-American culture for refusing to conform to the broader American culture.

Both sides miss the point.

The book is simply a story about one man's search for his identity. He is brutally honest, and has the courage to ask aloud the unspoken, uncomfortable questions about himself and his culture when faced with the horrors of Africa. Moreover, he has the courage to be honest in his answers to these quesitons.

His answers go against the grain of our current "civil rights" movement. Not suprisingly he has been branded a traitor by many people, an "oreo", and of course, an Uncle Tom.

What's truly regrettable about this is that because the "civil rights" movement in America has no diversity of thought, honest voices like Richburg's will be drowned out beneath name-calling and cries of racism. As a result, the kind of open, honest diaglogue necessary for racial reconciliation in America will not take place any time soon.