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Rejecting Roots

March 5, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now a debate about Africa and African-Americans. Charlayne Hunter-Gault recorded it last week.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What has triggered the debate is a new book by Keith Richburg, The Washington Post correspondent in Africa from 1991 to 1994. From that experience has come a provocative memoir, Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa.

Here are some examples that are provoking some of the heated exchanges. Of the brutality in Africa he wrote: “If Rwanda was different, it was because the violence, the death, was up close and personal, and unprecedented on the scale of savagery. Here the militias wouldn’t shoot you in the head, Somali style. They would carve off your arm first and watch you bleed and scream in pain.

Then, if you didn’t pass out, they would chop off one of your legs, or maybe just a foot. If you were lucky, they might finish you off with a machete blow to the back of the head. Otherwise, they might carve off your ears, your nose, and toss your limbless torso atop the pile of dead bodies, where you could slowly bleed to death.”

And of his connection to Africa, Richburg writes: “Maybe if I had never set foot there, I could celebrate my own blackness, my own African- ness. But while I know that Afrocentrism has become fashionable for many black Americans searching for identity, I know it cannot work for me. I am a stranger here. I am an American, a black American. And I feel no connection to this strange and violent place. Africa chewed me up and spit me back out again.”

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: With us now is Keith Richburg, and joining him in our discussion is Salih Booker, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa Studies Program. And starting with you, Mr. Richburg, “Africa chewed me up and spit me out.” What caused you to have such dark vision of the continent?

KEITH RICHBURG, Author, “Out of America”: Charlayne, I think it was perhaps that I went into it thinking that things would be different. When I went to Africa in 1991, the Africanists, the academics, the people who follow Africa in the U.S. were saying this would be Africa’s decade of democracy. This was a unique time for Africa. The Cold War had ended. This was a unique time for Africa. The Cold War had ended. The United States no longer had need to support some of these dictators who were in place.

We saw the fall of Mengistu in Ethiopia, the fall of Siad Bari in Somalia. It looked like elections were coming along, but you had democracy in Zambia sort of making a start with the election of Frederick Chiluba. And it really looked as if in many of these countries we were going to see dictators falling and democracy sprouting, the same way it had in Eastern Europe, the same way it had in parts of Asia, the Philippines, South Korea, and the same way it had in Latin America, where the military dictatorships were swept aside.

But, you know, after three and a half years, three years and three months actually, to be precise, I came away far more disillusioned because this great opportunity seemed to be lost, and I ended up spending most of my time not covering democratic developments but following one civil war after another, watching states collapse like Zaire, watching states wallow in their own misery, watching economic gains be reversed in some places. Kenya would be a good example.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you write that it was Somalia through which–that came to represent the prism through which you would see the rest of Africa. Why was that?

KEITH RICHBURG: It was sort of like an epiphany for me because, you know, I personally– and, you know, you were there as well–invested a lot of time in that story, because here we had a massive famine. And if you remember those horrific pictures, they really stirred the conscious, the imagination of the West and the world. This was the new world order.

We could go in. We could intervene in a big way with a military force. And we’re all behind it. It was an exciting time to be there on the beaches when the Marines landed, because we knew this was the way the world could work in the absence of the Cold War, the West coming in to help starving Africans. And what happened, that mission deteriorated. It became a guerrilla war, and ended with bodies being dragged through the streets.

We’ve had friends and colleagues who were killed there, journalists beaten to death by a mob for doing nothing except their jobs. And that whole episode–the great hopes we had when the Marine intervention commenced, followed by their hasty departures to the deaths of 18 Marines or 18 Army Rangers in the streets of Mogadishu–it was the highest and then the lowest all capsulized in this one desolate country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Does that square with your vision of Africa, Salih Booker, seen through the prism of the death and destruction and degradation of Somalia?

SALIH BOOKER, Council on Foreign Relations: No, it doesn’t. I would differ with Mr. Richburg rather severely. I think the 90′s are still very much possibly the decade of not just democratization for Africa but a sort of second independence. Since the beginning of the 90′s, we have seen the end of more wars and serious conflicts on the continent than we have seen the start of new conflicts.

We’ve seen an end to the war in Mozambique and Angola, South Africa, itself, as he mentioned, Eritrea and Ethiopia. We have seen the advent of multiparty electoral democratic systems. It’s no panacea, and it’s no short process. The United States is just one example of our own ancestors who were here for several hundred years before we had the right to vote. And we’re still working out our own democratic apparatus. I think–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So the bleak picture that he painted–

SALIH BOOKER: Well, it’s exaggerated.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Exaggerated, Mr. Richburg, Keith Richburg?

KEITH RICHBURG: Well, you know, I mean, obviously, one of the criticisms you get when you write a book like this is that people will say, well, you didn’t point out this country or that country where things are going well. And within the book I do point out what I say were the bright spots. I devote a lot of time and attention to South Africa, for example, and I say that Nelson Mandela was one of the real moral leaders on the continent. I do point out, for example, talking about democracy, that there were multiparty elections. I covered the multiparty election in Malawi.

I mention that in the book. I mention also that some of the other places where we thought democracy was taking root like Zambia, for example, I think is far less of an ideal situation than perhaps my friend and colleague there because if you look at the last election, there’s no way we could say that was a free and fair election. And the international observers there called it deeply flawed.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And your overall conclusion about democratization and reform in Africa is that it’s not headed anywhere, right?

KEITH RICHBURG: Well, my conclusion and, again, because I know journalists often get accused of laying out problems without putting in solutions, my conclusion of the book actually lays out some things that we should look at. And in that I say perhaps we rushed too quickly into pushing, using our aid money in the West to push African countries into holding elections.

Elections do not equal democracy, and what I say in my book is that what possibly we should be doing is pushing for things on another scale, pushing for reform of constitutions to get away from these imperial presidencies, strengthening NGO’s, strengthening groups on the ground, strengthening the independence of the Judiciary, working for an independent press.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. What about that, Mr.–

SALIH BOOKER: Well, I agree with all those elements. The contradiction is when you paint such a bleak picture of Africa’s prospects, and, in my view, an accurate picture, what you do is you undermine the will of the legislators in the United States and the U.S. government to be engaged in Africa, to provide the kind of assistance to strengthen civil institutions, et cetera. Africa–assistance to Africa and U.S. engagement in Africa has been declining precisely at a time when there’s great potential, when there has been greater economic growth, contrary to what Mr. Richburg said, in the last several years.

A majority of African countries have experienced the highest economic growth in the past decade and projections from the World Bank and elsewhere is that that trend is likely to continue.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Richburg?

KEITH RICHBURG: I mean, talk about American engagement, the biggest American engagement in Africa was when we sent 20,000 Marines onto the beaches of Mogadishu to help starving Somalis that ended with 18 dead Army Rangers and a new doctrine basically that seems an American foreign policy that we don’t want to get involved in these conflicts anymore.

So we stood by while the Rwanda conflict went on. It was a genocide against the Tutsis that killed up to a million Tutsi, and we stood by and basically let it happen because we didn’t want to cross what’s now being called the Mogadishu line.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Salih Booker.

SALIH BOOKER: Well, I agree with the problem of the so-called Mogadishu line but I would say our greatest engagement in Somalia was not Operation Hope, but it was American support of Siad Bari for several decades during his dictatorship where he abused the human rights of his population, where we propped up with our aid dollars and our military support a dictator.

The same is true in Zaire, the same is true in Liberia, Sudan, and Kenya as well. These five sort of traumatized countries that Mr. Richburg points out in his book and uses as examples of Africa’s failures, these were the five main recipients of the United States assistance during the past 30 years.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let me just go back to another point you made, Keith Richburg, in your book; that African-Americans are deluding themselves when they–and that they’re basically ignorant of Africa. An example you gave was of them coming to Africa, applauding dictators, and people who repress their own people.

KEITH RICHBURG: Well, that’s right. And I was referring very specifically to the people who are the luminaries, the name figures of the American civil rights movement who became popular name figures in America for standing up for the rights of black people and minority people and oppressed people on this soil.

Why is that when they go to Africa I find them hobnobbing with the likes of General Bobangita, the dictator of Nigeria, the likes of the president of Gabon, the likes of Valentine Strasser, who was the military–the military officer who overthrew the government and took over Sierra Leone? I mean, we shouldn’t be siding with these dictators.

The side of–these people should be on the side of those out there suffering every day, struggling, trying to get the same democratic rights that we enjoy and take for granted here in the United States.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He’s right about that, isn’t he, Salih Booker?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, I’m a fierce critic of those African-American leaders who would embrace African dictators, but the larger majority of African-American leadership has historically- -and I’m talking back at the dawn of the 20th century–people like W.E. DuBoise, et cetera, who had been committed to and have contributed significantly to African independent struggles against colonialism to the anti-apartheid struggle, to protests against U.S. support for dictators in Zaire, in Liberia, in Kenya, et cetera. The great majority of the African-American political leadership has been on the right side of people’s rights, of economic development, and democratization.

But I would agree, you know, and I would fiercely criticize any American public officials or political leaders who embrace dictatorships. But during the Cold War that was largely the role that was played by our national political leaders in the White House.

KEITH RICHBURG: Can I add something here?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yes, briefly.

KEITH RICHBURG: There seems to be a propensity among a lot of African-Americans or black Americans who go to Africa not to want to criticize these governments. It’s as if we don’t want these disputes to spill out of the family. We think it’s not a good idea for blacks to be criticizing black governments.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Finally, let’s briefly get you, Mr. Richburg. You come to the conclusion that black Americans should not be searching for their identity in Africa; you reject this Afrocentric notion that that is America’s home. You came away feeling as a complete stranger. Could you just elaborate on that briefly.

KEITH RICHBURG: What I meant by that was, you know, I understand that a lot of American blacks are feeling alienation here. There is discrimination. You know, I don’t need to go through a litany of urban problems, the drug problem, the crime problem, the problem of unemployment in the cities.

There is a feeling that integration is not working and so therefore there is now a tendency that seems fashionable to resegregate ourselves and to look back to a mythologized or romanticized time when we could hold our heads high as kings and queens in Africa.

And the point I tried to make in that section was, you know, having been there, I’ve kind of realized that, you know, 400 years or more that we have been on American soil has really ruptured any tie culturally that we have with Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ruptured our cultural ties, Mr. Booker?

SALIH BOOKER: I don’t think it’s ruptured the ties. I think those ties are very much alive. I think part of the problem is it’s not a problem for black Americans or white Americans differently, it’s an American problem, and that is this society is largely ignorant of Africa. So most people, whether they have a romantic embrace of Africa or whether they have an overly-pessimistic negative view of Africa have views that are based on bad information.

The majority of people, white and black, who are knowledgeable about Africa, who work in Africa, who travel and live in Africa, as I have for eight years, come away with a sense of a reality of Africa that is positive, and real connections, human connections. Africa is like anywhere else in the world, and I never felt alienated during my experiences there.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, I’m sure this debate will continue. Keith Richburg and Salih Booker, thank you for joining us.

KEITH RICHBURG: Thanks for having me.