Student Essay Response to An American in Africa

Below you will find an essay written by one of my students in  ENG 101. I use this essay every semester to help my students have a more balanced view of racism in America and to appreciate being an American. Popular media and politics have warped the thinking of many on the topic. I encourage you to share Richburg’s article you can find here:
American in Africa from By Keith B. Richburg 
Sunday, March 26, 1995; Page W16
Nicholas BrantleyProfessor Rickey PittmanENGL-101June 10, 2024A Brief Response to An American in Africa
I did not know what to expect when I opened the link for “American in Africa” by Keith Richburg though I was intrigued just by the title. The essay that I received upon opening it far surpassed my expectations. Mr. Richburg left me with more questions than answers and an unshakable feeling that this paper would never have made it past the editors’ desk into publication in today’s hyper-polarized society. I am glad that it was published, however, as it is one of the few times I have seen a black American write about traveling through Africa and the difficult emotions that they dealt with because of it. It provides an insightful, personal look into a sensitive topic that is not discussed enough.
I felt the essay focuses on Mr. Richburg’s attempt to reconcile the reality he witnessed in Africa versus what he thought it would be like based on his life in America. Numerous times in his essay he recounts events that put him squarely at odds with what most Americans believe, he as a black American, should be feeling. He even went so far as to point out that members of his own family questioned his motives in painting, or maybe feeling, a less-than-stellar picture of Africa. He quoted his cousin as saying, “Why does the media have to tear down our black leaders?” (Richburg). He felt torn and asked himself “Was I supposed to travel around looking for the “good news” stories out of the continent, or was I supposed to find the kind of compelling, hard-hitting stories that I would look for any other place in the world? Was I not to call a dictator a dictator, just because he happened to be black? Was I supposed to be an apologist for corrupt, ruthless, undemocratic, illegitimate black regimes?” (Richburg). I believe he felt himself in an impossible situation between his ethics and the expectations of the American black community.
I cannot personally relate to his experiences in Africa, being an American of European descent. However, I believe I can understand, at least intellectually, how difficult it was for him to put his thoughts to paper. This is best illustrated early in the essay when he states “There but for the grace of God go I” (Richburg) as he watches bodies float down the river and his seeming embarrassment in being thankful that his ancestor was enslaved 400 years ago. But for that enslavement, he might be one of those bodies or just another nameless person caught in the middle of the endless strife that racks the continent. He again states that feeling in his closing line “But by an accident of birth, I am a black man born in America, and everything I am today — culture, attitudes, sensitivities, loves and desires — derives from that one simple and irrefutable truth” (Richburg).

The technique he used in this essay was simple, straightforward, and effective. Mr. Richburg recounted his thoughts and experiences while working across Africa, introducing persons that he met when they were meaningful to his story, but not going into detail greater than what was needed to give me, the reader, some background clarity as to why they were important to a particular point. It is similar in style to works I have read in the past where the author narrates their story without embellishment or exaggeration. In a way, it reminded me of House to House by David Bellavia, though the latter was a full-length novel and not a short essay published in the Washington Post.

I can only imagine how it would feel to be in his situation. A black man born and raised in the States is sent to Africa on assignment and confronted with a harsh reality that does not lend itself to the story being told back home. Then on top of that immense reality check, to feel as if others in your community will criticize you for telling the story as you saw it, to be hurting your people, is a position I am glad I am not in. I am happy that Mr. Richburg published this work, all of us need to be able to see the world as it is and not a lie being told by those with an agenda, like the Pan-African conference he mentioned. It was a hard truth that he grappled with, but I am sure it is better to be honest with oneself than not.
Works Cited
Richburg, Keith. “American in Africa”. Washington Post, 26 Mar. 1995