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In search of an African self


A Black American's Journey into the Heart of Africa

By Eddy L. Harris

Simon and Schuster, $22

Reviewed by Will Rodgers

A desire burns in many black Americans to trace their roots back to Africa _ and be assured, Africa is where the ancestors of black Americans came from. But for black Americans who talk of Africa as "home" or the place where they can escape the injustices of society brought on simply because of the color of their skin, disappointment lies ahead.

That is one part of what Eddy L. Harris uncovers in Native Stranger: A Black American's Journey into the Heart of Africa.

Harris, a journalist and one-time screenwriter, graduated from Stanford University and studied in London. His first book, Mississippi Solo, received critical acclaim.

Native Stranger also is likely to receive rousing reviews; but the higher goal of animated debate is a cinch. Harris' book is sure to burrow into the heart and soul of all mankind, stirring emotions and introspection.

He writes: "Africa is the birth of mankind. Africa is the land of my ancestors. But Africa is not home. I hardly know this place at all."

Harris concludes he is one of a new race, "Blackamericans," a people with the black skin of Africans, but the culture of Americans.

But Harris' Native Stranger is more than a chronicle of his search to find himself, of his personal yearning to shatter the mysterious hold Africa had on him. It is a courageous, controversial and warm yet stark account of what Africa was, is and may become. It is the black history American education fails to teach black Americans. And it is a travelogue wonderfully woven together with impressions, details and anecdotes that transport the reader to small villages in Guinea-Bissau, the oppressive streets of Mali, the lush grasslands of Zaire and the rows of glass skyscrapers in Abidjan.

Harris's journey into the heart of Africa begins in Paris, the back door into Africa, where he spies the many Africans who "live a little in both worlds" of France and Africa. Just as Blackamericans go to Africa in search of what they cannot find in America, Africans go to France for the same reason. Neither finds satisfaction.

With child-like curiosity and enthusiasm but mature senses, Harris tastes, smells, sees, hears and feels his way onto the African continent _ carrying along the reader in a torrent of deft prose _ without a plan but to live as the Africans live, eat what they eat and walk where they walk. To be African.

He recognizes Ramadan _ a month of fasting from sunup till sundown for Muslims _ while his Islamic hosts ignore the religious tradition. He treks across the Sahara desert alone, rides in the back of trucks and Peugeot cars packed to the hilt with sweaty, smelly bodies. He squats over a bowl to eat rat stew with his fingers, showers in the night air by having a bucket of greasywater poured over him by his host's half-naked wife and sleeps on a floor mat covered with maggots.

He travels from Tunisia to Algiers to Morocco to Mauritania. Into Senegal, across the Gambia, on to Guinea-Bissau. A 20-hour train ride to Mali, a road trip to the Ivory Coast and an illegal bus ride into Liberia. Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin. He finds himself in a bureaucratic nightmare in Nigeria. Then Cameroon. Time in the Central African Republic, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi and Zambia. And finally on to cultures _ mostly white _ but most like his, in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Harris sees Africa and its myriad of people, traditions and cultures from the ground up. During his year of traveling through the countries of North Africa down to South Africa, Harris learns what it is to be African. But he learns, even more so, how different black Americans are from black Africans. Long before his journey is over, the mystery that had drawn Harris to Africa is gone. He has had enough and he wants out.

"I knew my days were numbered. I was tired of being African," he writes.

Though in a sea of black people, Harris comes face-to-face with racism _ better known as tribalism in Africa. Everywhere he goes, he is greeted by unbearable poverty _ children and adults begging unabashedly in the streets; sickness and death are all around. With luck, most children may live past the age of 5. The life-expectancy is just 47 years. He witnesses a universal submission to authority _ an authority which can change from day-to-day.

But through it all, the African people endure. And their enduring gives Harris hope for humanity.

"I will eat my steaks and fill my belly the same as always, but now when I do these things there will be second thoughts _ I hope _ for although I am not one of them, I really am one of them, the Arab and the Berber, the Bassar and the Bantu, and the Boer," he concludes. "There is a connection now, a real one _ a racial one, to be sure, but more important, a human one."

Will Rodgers is a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times.