All Commentary
Sunday, March 1, 1998

Not Out of Africa by Mary Lefkowitz and Out of America by Keith B. Richburg

Two Books Willing to Tackle Difficult Questions about Race, Culture, and Political Economy

Not Out of Africa

by Mary Lefkowitz

Basic Books • 1996 • xvii + 222 pages • $24.00

Out of America

by Keith B. Richburg

Basic Books • 1997 • xiv + 257 pages • $24.00

Laurence Vance is an instructor at Pensacola Bible Institute and a freelance writer living in Pensacola, Florida.

Has everything good come out of Africa? Can anything bad come out of Africa? The answers to these two questions are the respective subjects of two books that confront head-on the now politically correct teaching of Afrocentrism.

Although the proponents of Afrocentrism may emphasize a wide range of ideas, the agenda of Afrocentrism, according to Newsweek magazine, is “to assert the primacy of traditional African civilizations.” The two-edged sword of Afrocentrism aggrandizes ancient African civilizations while blaming the white man for the deplorable conditions in Africa today. Radical Afrocentrists like Louis Farrakhan have even stated that “the spread of international AIDS was an attempt by the U.S. government to decimate the population of central Africa.”

Both Not Out of Africa and Out of America have the same publisher and deal with the same broad theme. But the books are extremely different in their approach because of the background and training of their authors. Mary Lefkowitz, who wrote Not Out of Africa, is a white woman, a professor in the humanities at Wellesley College. Keith Richburg, the author of Out of America, is a black man, a reporter for the Washington Post. Lefkowitz writes as a historian; Richburg as an eyewitness.

Lefkowitz, defending the very foundations of Western civilization, specifically appraises the spurious Afrocentrist contention that the ancient Greeks stole their ideas from the Egyptians. Her work is heavily documented with the works of ancient authorities such as Plato and Plutarch. Richburg, defending the distinctly American way of life, examines firsthand the dictators and destruction that characterize Africa today. It is thus an intensely personal account of a black man who rejects the label “African-American.” Not surprisingly, charges of racism have been hurled at both Lefkowitz and Richburg.

The book by Lefkowitz will especially appeal to those interested in history. After a brief introduction that neatly summarizes the book, Lefkowitz addresses, in four chapters, what she calls the myths of Afrocentrism. In discussing the myths of African origins, Lefkowitz counters claims that Egypt invaded Greece, that Socrates and Cleopatra were black, and that North Africa is to be equated with black Africa.

The next myth Lefkowitz topples is that of the supposed cultural dependency of Greece on Egypt. Demonstrating her familiarity with the works of Herodotus and other ancient Greeks, she proves bogus the claims that the Greek philosophers (including Plato) studied in Egypt.

She also recounts the folly of an assertion that the Greek philosopher Aristotle came to Egypt with Alexander the Great and stole his philosophy from the library at Alexandria. The only problem with this, Lefkowitz points out, is that the library at Alexandria was not even built until after the death of Aristotle. In short, Lefkowitz decimates the Afrocentric notion of history and equates it with the theory that the earth is flat.

Out of America is the story of a black man who concludes that he wants no part of Africa. “Thank God that I am an American” is not only the last phrase of Richburg’s prelude, it is the theme that echoes throughout his book. For his courageous stand, Richburg has been branded by the black elites as a traitor to his race. And just what is Richburg’s crime? Merely telling the truth about a subject that is taboo among both blacks and whites: Africa.

Richburg lived in Africa as a reporter from 1991 to 1994. From his base in Kenya he covered the civil wars in Somalia and Rwanda and saw the carnage firsthand. But it is not just the war zones in Africa that are destructive. According to Richburg, “Daily living in Africa is also a constant battle to ward off possible disease and infection.” Throughout the book he describes the continent in which he traveled: rampant prostitution, venereal disease, AIDS, polygamy, murder, poverty, starvation, brutal dictators, corruption, and death—gruesome death.

In between Richburg’s horrific accounts of life and death in Africa, he occasionally takes time out to inject some thoughts on politics and economics. Richburg chastises the self-appointed black leaders in America who call for “immediate democratic reform in South Africa,” but who “become defensive, nervous, and inarticulate” when the subject turns to “the lack of democracy and human rights elsewhere in Africa.” He points out that for the vast majority of African nations, the end of colonialism has led to “more repression and brutality” than ever existed previously. Richburg contrasts black Africa with Southeast Asia. Although both regions emerged from colonialism at about the same time, Africa languishes while South Korea and Singapore prosper. Only one country in Africa reminded him of home—South Africa.

Given the continued fragile state of race relations in America, it is rewarding to find two books that are willing to ask—and answer—difficult questions about race, culture, and political economy.