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Into Africa, a place of oppression and pain

The eyes of the world are temporarily on Africa because George W. Bush is making his first trip (five days) there. The issues of HIV/AIDS, despotism, inhumanity and corruption on the continent are in the spotlight.

For me, an African-American, one of the most important recent trends related to Africa is the courage of a growing number of prominent blacks in the United States to publicly criticize African heads of state.

I am especially pleased that black organizations, such as the TransAfrica Forum and Howard University's Africa Action, have sent formal complaints to several African leaders, including Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and, of course, Charles Taylor of Liberia.

About the shift toward criticizing black Africans, Bill Fletcher Jr., president of TransAfrica, told the New York Times: "When the enemy was evil white people in South Africa, that was easy. But when the enemy becomes someone who looks like us, we're very skittish about taking that on. It's difficult to accept that a ruling class has emerged in Zimbabwe that is oppressing its own people, but you've got to face the reality. I felt like we had to speak out."

In a letter to Mugabe, Fletcher and others wrote: "We view the political repression under way in Zimbabwe as intolerable and in complete contradiction of the values and principles that were both the foundation of your liberation struggle and of our solidarity with that struggle."

Although most black-American Africa worshipers condemn this harsh criticism, ordinary Africans suffer from international neglect, repression, poverty and disease. They will benefit from this new stance. For the sake of ordinary Africans, black Americans, who can influence U.S. African policy, need to become realistic about conditions on the continent, face hard truths and take unapologetic action.

I have not been to sub-Saharan Africa since the mid-1970s, when I tried to fulfill a lifelong dream of reconnecting with the source of my beginning. (I had intended to go to Ethiopia last year but changed plans to co-author a play.) Never part of the politicized pan-African movement that captured the black imagination during the 1970s, 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).

Culturally, socially and politically, I did not reconnect with Africa. When I returned to the United States, I was a disillusioned ex-pilgrim. I was appalled by most of what I witnessed _ the violence and hunger, the disease and suffering, the graft and selfishness, the ignorance and vanity. After Marxist thugs in Addis Ababa threatened to shoot my three companions and me for being "CIA operatives," I was back in Chicago five days later.

Like me, 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, describes her ill-fated marriage to a South African freedom fighter.

She was drawn to him, as she was to the continent, by her own naivete and grand myths about the "Motherland" and tales of the nobility of its peoples. Angelou's final disillusionment with Africa is a powerful reminder that much of the real Africa is a place of oppression and pain. As I read her book, I sensed its subtext: American blacks and Africans have little, if anything, in common.

More vehemently than Angelou, another black, 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 horror, he shows his contempt for the genocidal Rwandans, Somalis, Ugandans, Ethiopians and others.

When American blacks accused Richburg of hating Africa and Africans, he said: "I don't hate Africa, and I don't hate Africans. . . . 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 people who toss firebombs in the offices of the opposition newspapers. . . . I hate the way people can walk by the suffering."

As I write, the following headline appears on A1 of the New York Times: "Liberian Says U.S. Backs his Enemies: Taylor Vows Exile Will Be Brief Before a Return to Politics." Charles Taylor, a brute and a thug, is the last thing ordinary Liberians need in their lives. And, by the way, while President Bush is in the nation-building mood, Liberia should be next up. American blacks must support him on this one.

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