November 22, 2012
FROM THE THANKSGIVING ARCHIVES: MUCH TO BE THANKFUL FOR:
I WATCHED THE DEAD float down a river in Tanzania. It's one of those apocryphal stories you always hear coming out of Africa, meant to demonstrate the savagery of "the natives." Babies being pulled off their mothers' backs and tossed onto spears. Pregnant women being disemboweled. Bodies being tossed into the river and floating downstream. You heard them all, but never really believed.
And yet there I was, drenched with sweat under the blistering sun, standing at the Rusumo Falls bridge, watching the bodies float past me. Sometimes they came one by one. Sometimes two or three together. They were bloated now, horribly discolored. Most were naked, or stripped down to their underpants. Sometimes the hands and feet were bound together. Some were missing limbs. And as they went over the falls, a few got stuck together on a little crag, and stayed there flapping against the current, as though they were trying to break free. I couldn't take my eyes off of the body of a baby.
We timed them: a body or two every minute. The Tanzanian border guards told us it had been like that for a couple of days now. These were the victims of the ethnic genocide going on across the border in Rwanda.
For the three long years that I spent covering Africa as a reporter for the Washington Post I had to live with images--countless images--like this one. Three years of watching pretty much the worst that human beings can do to one another. Revulsion. Sorrow. Pity at the monumental waste of human life. These sentiments began nagging me soon after I first set foot in Africa in late 1991. It's a gnawing feeling that I was really unable to express out loud until the end, as I was packing my bags to leave, a feeling I felt pained to admit, a sentiment that, when uttered aloud, might come across as callous, even racist.
And yet I know exactly this feeling that haunts me; I've just been too embarrassed to say it. So let me drop the charade and put it as simply as I know how: There but for the grace of God go I.
You see, I was seeing all of this horror a bit differently because of the color of my skin. I am an American, but a black man, a descendant of slaves brought from Africa. When I see these nameless, faceless, anonymous bodies washing over a waterfall or piled up on the back of trucks, what I see most is that they look like me.
Maybe 400 or so years ago, one of my ancestors was taken from his village, probably by a local chieftain. He was shackled in leg irons, kept in a holding pen or a dark pit, possibly at Goree Island off the coast of Senegal. And then he was put in the crowded, filthy cargo hold of a ship for the long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic to the New World.
Many of the slaves died on that voyage. But not my ancestor. Maybe it was because he was strong, maybe just stubborn, or maybe he had an irrepressible will to live. But he survived, and ended up in slavery working on plantations in the Caribbean. Generations on down the line, one of his descendants was taken to South Carolina. Finally, a more recent descendant, my father, moved to Detroit to find a job in an auto plant during the Second World War.
And so it was that I came to be born in Detroit and that 35 years later, a black man born in white America, I was in Africa, birthplace of my ancestors, standing at the edge of a river not as an African but as an American journalist--a mere spectator watching the bloated bodies of black Africans cascading over a waterfall. And that's when I thought about how, if things had been different, I might have been one of them--or might have met some similar fate in one of the countless ongoing civil wars or tribal clashes on this brutal continent.
We are told by some supposedly enlightened black leaders that white America owes us something because they brought our ancestors over as slaves. And Africa--Mother Africa--is often held up as a black Valhalla, where the descendants of slaves would be welcomed back and where black men and women can walk in true dignity.
Sorry, but I've been there. I've had an AK-47 rammed up my nose. I've seen a cholera epidemic in Zaire, a famine in Somalia, a civil war in Liberia. I've seen cities bombed to near rubble, and other cities reduced to rubble because their leaders let them rot and decay while they spirited away billions of dollars--yes, billions--into overseas bank accounts.
I've also seen heroism, honor, and dignity in Africa, particularly in the stories of ordinary people--brave Africans battling insurmountable odds to publish an independent newspaper, to organize a political party, to teach kids in some rural bush school, and usually just to survive. But even with all the good, my perceptions have been hopelessly skewed by the bad. My tour in Africa coincided with two of the world's worst tragedies--Somalia and Rwanda. I've had friends and colleagues shot, stabbed, beaten to death by mobs, left to bleed to death on a Mogadishu street--one of them beaten so badly in the face that his friends could recognize him only by his hair and his clothes.
So excuse me if I sound cynical, jaded. I'm beaten down, and I'll admit it. And it's Africa that has made me this way. I feel for her suffering, I empathize with her pain, and now, from afar, I still recoil in horror whenever I see yet another television picture of another tribal slaughter, another refugee crisis. But most of all I think: Thank God my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them.
In short, thank God that I am an American.
Mr. Richburg's book is marvelous
Posted by oj at November 22, 2012 12:03 AM
(originally posted: 7/10/04)