MAXWELL:  No illusions on next Africa trip

10/17/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


During the mid-1970s, I went to Africa to fulfill a lifelong dream of reconnecting with the source of my beginning. Never part of the politicized pan-African movement that captured the black imagination then, I went to Africa solely for personal enrichment.

My 18-month itinerary took me to Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Zaire (today the Republic of Congo).

Did I reconnect with the source of my beginning? No. Did I feel the profound ancestral pull I had sought? No.

When I returned to the United States, I was a deeply disillusioned ex-pilgrim. Hardly anything about these African nations impressed me. In fact, I was appalled by much of what I witnessed _ the violence and hunger, the disease and suffering, the graft and selfishness, the ignorance and vanity. After Marxist agents in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, threatened to shoot my companions and me for being “CIA operatives,” I left Africa and have not returned.

Next year, however, I plan to return to Ethiopia. This time, though, I will not pack naive illusions about the continent. Nor will I fool myself into believing that, for me to be a complete African-American with real sense of self, I must nurture an intellectual, a cultural and an emotional affinity with the black peoples of Africa.

My planned return to Africa drew me to Kinship: A Family’s Journey in Africa and America, Philippe Wamba’s new book, which is a family and personal memoir about black America’s love-hate relationship with Africa _ a tortured romance that produced the self-immolating “blacker-than-thou” battles among black intellectuals and college students during the 1960s and ’70s.

Wamba understands all of it. His mother is an American black, his father Congolese. Born in Boston and a graduate of Harvard University, he spent many years with his family in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For him, and he makes his case compellingly, black people around the world share common interests, common goals and a common destiny.

“I was born both African and African American, but it took years for me to understand what that duality could mean,” Wamba writes. “My blackness has been the bridge that has linked my two identities, the commonality that my split selves share. But it often seems a tenuous link. And not just for me. I have traveled the world, with my race as my constant companion and curse, and everywhere I have seen black people bewildered by a strange tension between feeling powerfully bound by what they share and hopelessly repelled by what they do not.”


Each time I visit Israel, I am drawn to the Ethiopian Jews, and they are equally drawn to me. We stare at one another, sensing that somehow we are connected. Those who speak English ask if I am Ethiopian. Not directly, I tell them, but, on my mother’s side of the family, I have Ethiopian ancestry. Nearly everything stops there, however, because, beyond DNA and skin color, we have few traits in common. I now realize that my fascination with the Ethiopians in Israel is primarily that _ fascination.

Wamba probably would disagree, as would other prominent blacks such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Jesse Jackson.

Like me, though, many other American blacks come away from Africa disappointed, some permanently alienated. In her 1981 book, The Heart of a Woman, poet and novelist Maya Angelou, for example, graphically describes her ill-fated marriage to a South African freedom fighter and her final disillusionment with many things African.

With the naivete of an American black in the 1960s who is smitten by the ideal of Africa, Angelou summarizes her first impression of Vusumzi Make, her husband-to-be: “The man was blue-black and spectacular. His unquestionable dignity gave lie to the concept that black people were by nature inferior. His presence alone refuted the idea that our descendants had been naked subhumans living in trees three centuries before, when the whites raided them on the African continent. That elegance could not have been learned in three hundred years.”

Later, she would see Make quite differently, realizing that his “Africanness” was nothing more than culturally defined male conceits and male domination. With insight, she began to see Africa as a place of oppression and pain.

More vehemently than any other black American writer, Washington Post journalist Keith Richburg argues that American blacks and Africans have nothing in common. In his 1997 book Out of Africa: A Black Man Confronts Africa, chronicling his eyewitness accounts of unspeakable horror, he demonstrates his contempt for the genocidal Rwandans, Somalis, Ugandans, Ethiopians and others.

In a 1997 interview, Richburg responded to criticism from American blacks that his book reveals his hatred of Africa:

“Well … actually … I don’t hate Africa, and I don’t hate Africans. What I end up saying is that I hate the corruption. I hate the brutality. I hate the inhumanity … I hate the kids who point guns in my face. I hate the big men who spirit away billions in the Swiss bank accounts. I hate the maddening propensity of Africans to kind of roll and wallow and endure this suffering without taking to the streets _ and doing more to demand their own rights. I hate the people who toss firebombs in the offices of the opposition newspapers … I hate the way people can walk by the suffering.”

Richburg also says he rejoices that his ancestors escaped from Africa, coming to the American colonies in the holds of slave ships.

As I make plans to return the continent, I keep one eye on the foreign news headlines. As I write, I read this headline in the Miami Herald: “Ethnic hatred continues to divide Africa.” The article describes how Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis are slaughtering one another.

Are these my people? Can I or any other honest black American ever reconnect with them? I wonder.