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Gerald Early

What's So Black About Africa?

A reader with a very strong postmodernist bent might read Keith B. Richburg's Out of America as a perverse attempt at a film noir script. In film noir, the protagonist is beset by various legitimate and illegitimate group and institutional interests, almost always in a case of mistaken identity. The protagonist is thought to be someone he isn't. Here, in this book, our protagonist (the hero, for conservative whites and blacks, or anti-hero, for Afrocentrists, black nationalists, and white liberals) just happens to be Richburg himself, an enterprising, truth-seeking, if somewhat harried, black American journalist, who spends the length of this work running from the mistaken identity of blackness. He does not, in the end, wish to be mistaken for underachieving American blacks who want government handouts, the type who burned down their Detroit neighborhood in 1968, as Richburg's father showed him from their front door, or those nasty, savage black Africans who threaten to stain their entire continent with murderous political chaos and diseased blood. It is his literal fear in the book that he will be mistaken for a Hutu, a Somali, a Tutsi, a black South African, or, when he is shopping or banking in America, an outlaw black. It comes as his great relief that he is none of these, even if it is sometimes difficult for him to convince the world of that fact.

If Richburg had been a more imaginative writer, there would have been something here for an exceptional, or at least unusual, book about identity as a form of power and as an expression of fate, as the psychology of group disharmony. The problem with this book lies not in the fact that the real subject here is Richburg himself and not Africa. We might lament the fact that the author seems not to recognize that Africa is indeed the greater subject and the more laden with possibilities, but nonetheless Richburg himself as subject would have been sufficient if he had taken a more detached view of himself or had taken himself ...

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