Keith B. Richburg was an experienced and respected reporter who had paid his dues covering urban neighborhoods in Washington D.C., and won praise for his coverage of Southeast Asia. But nothing prepared him for the personal odyssey that he would embark upon when he was assigned to cover Africa. In this powerful book, Richburg takes the reader on an extraordinary journey that sweeps from Somalia to Rwanda to Zaire and finally to South Africa. He shows how he came to terms with the divide within himself: between his African racial heritage and his American cultural identity. Are these really my people? Am I truly an African-American? The answer, Richburg finds, after much soul-searching, is that no, he is not an African, but an American first and foremost. To those who romanticize Mother Africa as a black Valhalla, where blacks can walk with dignity and pride, he regrets that this is not the reality. He has been there and witnessed the killings, the repression, the false promises, and the horror. "Thank God my nameless ancestor, brought across the ocean in chains and leg irons, made it out alive," he concludes. "Thank God I am an American."
Richburg spent three years (1991-1994) covering Africa for the Washington Post, and his tour of crisis zones like Somalia, Rwanda and Liberia left him disgusted and disheartened by the carnage, corruption and ungovernability that he observed. Moreover, faced with his self-identity as a black man- "there but for the grace of God go I"-and what he sees as black Americans' unthinking invocation of Africa, the jaded author concludes with an embrace of his essentially American identity. Indeed, his pungent narrative shoves African violence in our faces, while his encounters with African locals are inevitably distanced by culture and class. He takes a crusading journalist's pleasure in cross-examining visiting American black luminaries who excuse Africa's lack of democracy. Among evasionists, he finds one straight talker, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, who, after citing the usual litany of explanations (colonialism, etc.), which Richburg deems excuses, for African failures, criticizes his own people's lack of discipline. Richburg in turn applies that analysis to the problems plaguing black Africa. The author's harsh words, backed by experience, should stir controversy. But his report is too thin. His conclusions might have been tempered by reports that some black groups (like TransAfrica) have recently pressured Nigeria on human rights, and the no-longer-hopeful author doesn't acknowledge how the West might use aid to leverage political change. Richburg's crisis-based experience also ignores some other stories about the ambiguous black American African encounter, such as those told in Eddy Harris's Native Stranger. First serial to U.S. News & World Report.