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Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land
     

Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land

by Randall Robinson
 

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Bestselling author Randall Robinson, one of our nation's most distinguished African-American leaders, returns with a book certain to be as important and controversial as his classic book on reparations, The Debt.

The man hailed by Cornel West as "the greatest pro-Africa freedom fighter of his generation in America" makes a striking departure, figuratively

Overview

Bestselling author Randall Robinson, one of our nation's most distinguished African-American leaders, returns with a book certain to be as important and controversial as his classic book on reparations, The Debt.

The man hailed by Cornel West as "the greatest pro-Africa freedom fighter of his generation in America" makes a striking departure, figuratively and literally: He leaves America for a life in the Caribbean.

Randall Robinson is quitting America, and this book charts his journey from the most powerful nation on earth to the tiny tropical island where his wife was born. His search for a more peaceful and hospitable place grew out of the disappointment and increasing sense of abandonment he felt in the land of his own birth-an America that has sapped the creative energies of his race and "transfigured humanity."

Here, in a culture that is as different from America as black is from white, Robinson shares his feelings about the need to escape the racism he has fought all his life. Yet even while he lives among his wife's people, America is never far from his mind. He discusses the current state of political and socioeconomic affairs in our country, and why the leadership we have put in place will continue to fall short of our expectations.

Another stirring example of the astonishing breadth and scope of Randall Robinson's vision, Quitting America demonstrates once again why he is one of the most profound and provocative thinkers of our time.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Randall Robinson's new book straddles several genres. It is an impassioned jeremiad against the war in Iraq. It is a fascinating history of the Caribbean, from the horrors of slavery and colonialism, through the battle for independence, to the economic dilemmas of the 21st century. But, above all, Quitting America is a love story; more specifically, a wrenching tale of unrequited love. — Jake Lamar
Publishers Weekly
Founder of the humanitarian group TransAfrica, Robinson has been eloquently angry in his calls, including The Debt and The Reckoning, for America to recognize the depredations suffered by the descendants of slaves. Part meditation, part rant, this book takes off from Robinson's move to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts (his wife's home country), but he has hardly mellowed. The book's first part is titled "Five Hundred Years of White Crimes and Self-Absolution in the Americas," contrasting the modest, decent nature of life in St. Kitts with a wealthy, harsh, racist, complacent America. Regarding violence, for example, "Americans only ask: who? Never: why?" The book's second part is a Chomskyesque essay of political manipulation regarding Iraq. The third circles back to contrast cash-obsessed America and the social goals of places like St. Kitts and Haiti, which, despite their modestness, are grounded in the commonweal of all. Robinson makes casual checkable errors (a proposal to put a U.S. base on St. Kitts did make the U.S. press) as well as more profound ones: the pronouncement "Only white countries are capable of killing so many at one time" immediately raises the specter of Rwanda. But incontrovertible wrongs fuel Robinson's ire: the U.S. government protects Haiti's leading human rights violator; slavery defender Robert E. Lee is widely commemorated; President Bill Clinton helped wreck the Caribbean banana trade during the U.S.-Europe feud over imports in 1999. Adding it all up, Robinson sees the difference between the status of blacks in America and blacks he sees in St. Kitts as the result of the "post-slavery American experience." Readers will find it difficult to disagree. (On sale Jan. 26) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Beware: Robinson is writing again, and his contempt for America's treatment of its black minorities still rages. In protest, the author, activist, and founder of TransAfrica has quit America. Robinson (Defending the Spirit) currently resides with his family on the island of St. Kitts, but that has not dulled his pen or his sense of outrage. He asks, "Are economic numbers more important than life itself?" Deriding the sinking ship of American domestic affairs, he condemns our nation for its failure to become socially compassionate. Born out of years of frustration, these 22 choppy chapters focus on white crimes, disintegrating democracy, and the innocent victims. Not even black leadership escapes his hairtrigger, and he is contemptuous of national figures like Condoleezza Rice ("not worth my thoughts") and especially Colin Powell, whom he terms a "Ronald Reagan rectal success of a conscience-dead black man." Some may argue with his reasoning but few can fault his passion and zeal. Recommended for large public and academic libraries.-Boyd Childress, Auburn Univ. Lib., AL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780525947585
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/05/2004
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Jewel

You must listen to a place before you can know it, before you can know it even a little. Be quiet and listen. The place, the people, the peculiar textile of the culture will tell you all about itself, by and by, if you, hard though it may be for an American, manage to be respectful enough to shut up for a time and listen.

You know this and it is still all but impossible to achieve, particularly here where you are distracted at first so completely by the mesmerizing otherworldly look of the place.

Just this morning shortly after six I observed a miles-wide plate of clouds, washed red on the flat underside by the rising sun and balanced on a spit of cotton that appeared to coil up from the depths of a shimmering sea—a sea that triangularly glistened varieties of red fanning forward from the fulcrum cloud's foot to the distant shores that welcomed the sea's ageless return. The mountain beside which the sun rose appeared purple on its shadow face, a deep green toward the coming day. The vista was animated by the swaying palm fronds of slender coconut trees that clustered in small sandy bays along a pristine coastline. This is St. Kitts.

The early first-century Christian authors of the Gnostic Gospels must have seen a place like this while developing the philosophical conviction that God indeed was in us and everywhere around us. For how else could such matchless natural beauty be possible?

The artist Georgia O'Keeffe lamented the modern human's compromised ability to see natural beauty and thus be spiritually renovated by it. Rendered insensible by steel girders and concrete- surround, what chance have the eyes of the soul to restupon a bird-of-paradise blossom on a verdant hillside? But here still on this tiny Caribbean island where there is a surviving sanity of scale, where the quaint wood and stone-face buildings decline to dwarf their makers, where traffic is directed by a person and not a machine, where on narrow streets the rules of vehicular behavior are recited solicitously to drivers by every man, woman, and child afoot, here I think, yes, in a small place like this, the soul, the spirit, has a fighting chance.

Of course what size chance may depend on the gravity of one's wounds. America is a big place. Everything about it is big. It has big buildings, big streets, big guns, big money, big power, big hubris, big wounds. Everything about America is big except its people, who, unbeknownst to most Americans, are mere human beings, no bigger or smaller than human beings any place else in the world. They only look smaller, or behave smaller, because they come from a country where everything else, besides them, is so lethally big, so crudely antagonistic to the naked human's social requirement.

Recently at the Ocean Terrace Inn, an American white father was heard saying over dinner to his family and forty-nine fellow dinner guests, waiters, and a maître d' that he “couldn't wait to get out of St. Kitts and back to Trenton.”

Trenton?

It seemed not to matter to the unhappy American that he had offended the maître d', all of the waiters, and most of the dinner guests on racial grounds alone. He was an American with big hubris. He had noticed in his short stay that the weather was “nice.” He had not noticed, except as backdrop, the people of the country—least of all, apparently, those bringing him his food— and he would return to Trenton without knowing what a bird-of-paradise was.

Both the personality type and its ideas are an American commonplace abroad, oozing like a contagion throughout a resort-mad world, replicating resentment toward America by a factor of what? Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty percent of white Americans who vacation in the black and brown world? There is no way to answer this. The evidence is anecdotal. But ask any cab driver in the long lines that begin to form throughout the Caribbean at 5:00 a.m. at the deepwater ports on cruise-ship days.

Make no mistake, the people who live here and elsewhere along the archipelago of the eastern Caribbean very much want American economic partnership. No island economy can afford to be cut adrift by so powerful a regional neighbor. The governments of these islands have met every reasonable test for friendship. They all rank high in the global community of civilly well-run democracies. They all score high marks in the areas of human rights, literacy, health care, and general quality of life. They are all well-disposed toward the United States.

Why then have America and Americans behaved so callously toward governments and peoples who present them with no threat but only proffers of friendship? Perhaps Americans, or more specifically, white Americans, have behaved such because they only really value or respect what they either crave or fear: money or might, all else to be belittled, disdained, dismissed, even desecrated. Could it be that in America, the unexcelled bigness of all things material has resulted in the concomitant relative smallness of all values nonmaterial? Moribund ethics. The death of the spirit. An unexamined and withering national soul. The commercialization of everything from school to pew.

I am not suggesting that most Americans behave abroad like the white father from Trenton. He not only was possessed of a malignant purpose, but of an absence of manners to cloak his boorishness, as well. Most white Americans in their dealings with black, brown, and all other varieties of nonwhite people are altogether well-mannered and are often all the more damaging for it. For indeed fine manners and America's national opiate of choice, chauvinistic narcissism, combine to immunize white Americans en masse from self-knowledge, self-doubt, self-criticism. If they don't like us, it is only because they are jealous of us.

So cut off are most white Americans from self-knowledge, that one could publicly present a typical example of American high-office churlishness aimed at a foreign black head-of-state without causing so much as a ripple in the American press, while the same insult aimed at, say, a clerk of the exchequer of Liechtenstein, would result in windy umbrage taken in a rumble across the American body politic.

Dr. Denzil Douglas is the prime minister of the two-island nation of St. Christopher and Nevis (known more widely as St. Kitts-Nevis). Dr. Douglas, a medical doctor by training, is black, as are the vast majority of the forty-five thousand citizens of his stable democratic country, which is located not terribly far east of two islands that are better known to Americans: St. Thomas and St. Croix. Dr. Douglas (who heads the island's Labor Party) and leaders of the opposition party, the People's Action Movement, have agreed, if on little else, that the small economy of the country must be diversified away from a reliance on sugar production, which lately has been losing money due to falling prices across the world. Thus, efforts have been undertaken on St. Kitts and other Caribbean islands to expand the tourism and offshore banking sections of their economies, the latter of the two efforts frustrated significantly by the United States.

It was in this connection that an official of Ross University, an offshore American veterinary school operating in St. Kitts with a virtually all-white American faculty and students, sought to arrange a meeting in the United States between Dr. Douglas and Congressman Curt Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania. It was during this meeting, after listening to Dr. Douglas discuss what he thought was the sole item on the agenda, that Congressman Weldon proposed what he thought Dr. Douglas' tiny country might do for the United States.

Contemporaneous with the meeting between Dr. Douglas and Congressman Weldon, all hell had broken out on Vieques, an island parcel of Puerto Rico, a possession of the United States. The United States has been using parts of Vieques as a test site for American military weapons. Our boys bomb it, shoot it, pulverize it. Blow it up to watch its dust dance hither and yon on the poisoned wind. As a result, Puerto Ricans living in the vicinity of the tests have over the years developed cancer at an alarming rate. Massive protests, joined in by prominent U.S. mainlanders, were begun on Vieques calling upon the U.S. Navy to end its bombardment of the island.

Congressman Weldon thought the Navy might be forced to move its operations to another venue. This realization caused him to invite Prime Minister Douglas to consider allowing the United States to bomb his beautiful, peaceful, stable little island nation. Our boys had to play with their ordnance somewhere.

No regional small-country leader can afford to brand a proposal from a U.S. congressman as stupid, no matter how absurd the proposed idea. Congressman Weldon had spoken, as Republicans are wont to speak, with no trace of irony. Prime Minister Douglas had little choice but to say that his government would take under advisement the congressman's politely rendered proposal to destroy his country. It should surprise no one that Congressman Weldon's proposal, gotten wind of by the local press, provoked quite a tempest on the island and died aborning. Not a line about any of this appeared anywhere in the American press.

Many, if not most, Americans will read this and no doubt sigh a “what's the big deal, and where is this place you're talking about, anyhow?” As a practical matter maybe it wouldn't be such a big deal, were not such coarse little bricks being hurled willy-nilly across the world daily by brainless, insensate white Americans, high and low, numbering in the thousands. And no, I have not suffered an inexplicable lapse of language judgment. I use the words brainless and insensate advisedly, if perhaps somewhat desperately. White people around the world insult black people, brown people, everyone-but-them people, regularly and gratuitously, without even the bitter, dubious flattery of conscious intent. From overbearing congressmen, to wide-eyed cruise line steerage, to fuzzy-cheeked Ross veterinary students who somehow cannot bring themselves to walk amongst the locals without a flank of attack dogs.

In any case, it is not a fair fight to contest coarseness of power with coarseness of language. No chance of winning. But it might make a handful of Americans—no let's be blunt here, white people—see themselves if for the briefest of moments self-critically, particularly in a world churning dangerously out of anyone's clear control.

Americans believe that their country is the greatest country in the world. I have never known what this was supposed to mean. If however it was meant to suggest that America is the best place in the world to live, Americans might be a little annoyed to learn that another group of white people, presumably not Americans, had decided that Norway is the best place in the world to live, this despite Norway's frigid 2:00 p.m. winter nightfall, which might well explain the country's high alcoholism and suicide rates.

I am just guessing here, but I think when Americans say that America is the greatest country in the world, they mean only that it is the richest and most powerful, that their country meets all the bigness tests, that Americans have more stuff than anybody else, and that they can just flat shoot everybody else's lights out. This is what they must mean. I don't think they can mean that Americans are the happiest people in the world, or the most well-adjusted people in the world, or the most moral, or anything like that.

In Idaho, a U.S. senator running for reelection is being called a fraud by his opponent because the senator hasn't been making maximum use of his hunting license. The thinking goes that the incumbent senator can't be reliably pro-gun if he hasn't been using his own gun regularly enough to shoot animals. The incumbent's opponent has been hammering away on this point in a television campaign ad, with reason to believe that the good citizens of Idaho are coming to share his view that the senator has indeed not been shooting enough animals.

CNN squeezed the Idaho campaign story in between live news segments about the serial snipers who had been terrorizing the Washington, D.C., area. The snipers had shot and killed ten people at range with a high-powered rifle poked through a hole in the trunk of a two-hundred-and-fifty- dollar Chevrolet Caprice. A talking-head psychologist said on CNN that the snipers were killing because snipers “enjoyed” killing. The CNN interviewer then asked the talking-head psychologist to give a profile of the snipers. The talking-head psychologist said among other things that a very reliable predictor of psychopathic adult behavior is a childhood enjoyment taken in the killing of animals. When I was twelve, I saw a boy named Mordecai Harris impale a frog on his scout dirk. This was long before the talking-head psychologist was born, long before CNN even. I thought then on that weekend camping trip in July 1953, before I had ever heard the word psychopath, that Mordecai Harris was crazy.

Most people in the world who hunt do it to eat, to survive. But in the “great” nations with the great surpluses of stuff, hunters hunt not to eat but for the “sport” (a euphemism for joy) of it. Get the glorious beast (the proud buck in New Hampshire, the lolling lion in Kenya) in the cross hairs of the scope's reticle and blow the beast to kingdom come. Sever the head. Stuff it. Ship it home. Bolt it onto the family-room wall above mantle and hearth. And regard one's own proud countenance reflected in the dead beast's glassy eyes.

Mordecai Harris stabbed a frog that happened across his path. It was plain enough that he enjoyed it. As I have said, I thought he was crazy, really crazy. But there must be degrees of crazy here. If Mordecai had been required, in order to kill the frog, to go to some bureau downtown to buy a license, and then on to some gun store to buy a hunting rifle and other gun paraphernalia, and then pile into a car with two or three other guys at four in the morning, and then shiver in the woods waiting maybe hours for the frog to show itself....

Well, I just think if Mordecai had had to go to all that trouble to have a little fun killing a frog, he'd have foregone the pleasure. And Mordecai bore all the signs, according to the CNN talking- head psychologist, of a born psychopath. The whole point that the CNN talking-head psychologist was laboring to make was that it was a very short developmental leap from Mordecai Harris to psychopath to serial sniper.

Well if Mordecai was crazy, and he certainly was, what does that say about all the others who kill for the joy of it—not frogs, but big, good-looking mammals out for a stroll in their own habitat, warm-blooded vertebrates that nourish their young with milk just like we humans do? Animals with hair like humans, not bothering anyone, animals whose meat the shooter doesn't need and won't bother to eat? God, what a beauty moving with balletic grace in the glass circle of the big scope.

Look at the thing, will ya?

Jesus, there's two of 'em. Which to take down?

Just standing there.

Do you see 'em Jack? Do you see 'em?

Hol-ld still now, baby.

Blam!!

I got 'em. I got 'em, Jack.

Look at that thing.

Neck blown open. Antlers askew. Surprised eyes, wide and sightless. Blood, red and spumy, bubbling up from the large, ragged hole in the graceful neck.

Aah, that was great.

That was sick, was what it was. Real sick. Way sicker than Mordecai Harris, the born psychopath, ever was. But that's a good chunk of Idaho, most of the membership of the National Rifle Association, and a sizable section of American men.

Fanny Kemble, an actress on the English stage in the nineteenth century, married a wealthy Philadelphian, Pierce Butler, during her tour of America in the 1830s. After living on the Butler family's slave plantation in the Georgia Sea Islands, Kemble described her impressions of American life in journal entries in 1838—1839 that were later published upon her divorce and return to England in a book entitled Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation:
The profusion of birds here is one thing that strikes me as curious, coming from the vicinity of Philadelphia, where even the Robin Redbreast, held sacred by the humanity of all other christian people, is not safe from the gunning prowess of the unlicensed sportsmen of your free country. The Negroes (of course) are not allowed the use of firearms, and their very simply constructed traps do not do much havoc among the feathered hordes that haunt their rice fields.... no day passes that I do not, in the course of my walk, put up a number of land-birds, and startle from among the gigantic sedges the long-necked waterfowl by dozens. It arouses the killing propensity in me most dreadfully, and I really entertain serious thoughts of learning to use a gun, for the mere pleasure of destroying these pretty birds as they whirr from their secret coverts close beside my path.

On the matter of the “humanity of all other [C]hristian people,” Ms. Kemble's research falters:
Henry VIII, early in the sixteenth century, on more than one occasion had two to three hundred deer rounded up from his royal forests, penned, and set upon by his hunting; an admiring observer of a wild-bird hunt wrote that “sometimes they take a pretty feathered army prisoners, two or three thousand at one draught and give no quarter”; the Duke of Henneberg in 1581 is credited with shooting “no fewer than 1003 red deer” in a single afternoon, and the elector of Saxony and his party killed 1,532 wild boar on one hunt in 1585.
—Kirkpatrick Sale
The Conquest of Paradise
Practically no one shoots animals in St. Kitts. At least not for the sheer fun of it. There are no serial killers. There are murders, but they are of the ordinary stripe.

Trevor Isaac, the man who built our house here—wonderful craftsman, sound aesthetic judgment, calibrating mind and all that—says to me one day, “You know, Mr. Robinson (I had tried on and off for two years to get him to address me by my given name, but to no avail), I've never lived off St. Kitts. I've been to some other islands but never to America. Tell you the truth, I've never been interested in living anyplace else but here.” He paused and looked out toward a sea that was blue- green under a sun sparkle with whitecaps tossed about by a strong northeasterly trade wind. He was one of those people who appeared taller than he actually was, which looked to be about six feet. He was athletically built, with a contractor's deeply sun-burnished skin. He was a very smart man who had overcome an impoverished start that might have diverted him from a career in quantum physics. As it was, he was an on-the-job genius with his quantities. No miter-cut missed, no board wasted, no wedding of material miscarried.

“I've seen a number of news stories on CNN about people stealing children in America. Do things like that really happen there?”

Through some no doubt costly magic property of the unconscious, the human animal can habituate to virtually any condition and read the condition as endurable, even normal.

“When Hazel and I would take Khalea to a shopping mall in America, we would tell her never to get more than fifteen feet from one or the other of us and never out of our line of sight.” I told him what had happened to the Lyon sisters, white preteen sisters who had disappeared from a Wheaton, Maryland, shopping mall nearly twenty-five years ago with no indication then or since what had happened to them.

“This happens frequently in America. It has for a very long time, although I can't recall that it happened quite so often when I was a child.”

He looked as astonished as a manly sort will allow. Kidnapping is unheard of in St. Kitts.

It is 6:30 in the evening as I write this and growing dark. It is late October 2002, and the days are shortening, though not by Washington lengths because of our relative closeness to the equator. Khalea is downtown at a meeting of her school's Young Leader's Club. She is serving her second term as president. The club of twelve-year-olds is meeting over dinner at a restaurant up from the Bay Road near the center of Basseterre's small business district, which is five miles or so along the main island road from our home. We will pick Khalea up at seven. It will be dark by then. The other children live in town nearby. They will walk home. No one will have reason to worry about their safety.

Trevor said, “America seems to be a very dangerous place.”

“I guess it is, although I never thought about it as much when I lived there as I do now.”

Hazel and I park our Honda CRV on the Bay Road a half block shy of the restaurant, which is situated on a corner just up from the bay waters of the Caribbean Sea, quiet now save for the soft rhythmic lapping of the resting tide. Not far from the restaurant and into the bay runs the ghaut, a street carved into a V-shaped basin to evacuate the torrent of water that pours down from the mountain during hurricanes.

We turn off the engine and settle down to wait for Khalea to finish her meeting. We are early. The sun shows to the west a parting sliver that spreads out onto the sea like mercury on a mirror and then dissolves slowly into the shining surface of the water.

Across the Bay Road and down from the restaurant, there are some fifty people either sitting or strolling about on the Port Zante courtyard. About fifteen men dressed in blue denim shirts and trousers begin to climb up onto the back of an open bed truck parked just inside the courtyard. They have only just finished delivering chairs for an evening social event of some sort on the courtyard. The men all appear to be in their twenties, with the exception of three who looked middle-aged. They pull each other aboard laughing and talking in an idiom that I can hear but not understand at a distance.

Several of the men waiting in the vicinity of the truck talk with others around them who are dressed more conventionally. One of them, carrying a razor-sharp machete with which he has been pruning coconut fronds, brings a sprig of purple bougainvillea and presents it to a little girl of four who is standing with her parents. The girl smiles. The man who walks with a slight limp joins a line of four others waiting to be pulled aboard the truck. All boarded, a tall erect man dressed in a service cap and starched cottons secures the truck's rear gate and walks toward the driver's side door on which are stenciled the letters h.m.p. On his belt are a clutch of keys and a nightstick that he removes and places on the seat beside him. Slowly the truck belonging to Her Majesty's Prison pulls out of the Port Zante courtyard and heads north on Fort Street toward the Cayon Street Prison.

I have witnessed this intermingling of prisoners and civilians many times now, enough times to know that I am the only one present who feels anything close to fear. In America, we have been conditioned with good reason to be wary of prisoners. Their wardens keep them away from civilians and under armed control, behind and beyond the prison walls, for fear that they will hurt us. We see them as alien and dangerous people, former human beings. America has more than two million such people now, half of them black. America, believed by its people to be the greatest country in the world, accounts for a quarter of the world's prisoners, although it represents but a twentieth of the world's population.

During my last year of law school, thirty-two years ago, I spent time helping convicted felons prepare appeals pleadings. It was in this connection that I on several occasions visited Walpole State Prison, the maximum security state penitentiary in Walpole, Massachusetts. I can still feel the tower guns and lights trained on my back as I strode what seemed an interminable distance from the prison wall to the cell block. I can still hear the closing of the steel doors, the echo of the first preternatural sound giving way grudgingly to the chilling clang of the next. Men, for all the middle years of their manhoods, pent in small sunless chambers, black, white, hispanic, locked in, locked out, scorned, scuttled, heaped together in mutual disaffirmance, producing together finally for the outside society a price higher by far than the crimes of which they had originally been convicted.

I saw something here last week that brought the Walpole memory back in fresh relief. The Springfield Cemetery sits on a rise just to the west of a section of Basseterre called Greenlands. The old burial ground, dating back to 1855, is square-shaped, running three city blocks to a side with a small chapel at its center constructed of ancient limestone walls under an anterior steeple and a sharply pitched roof. Just north of the cemetery square is the official residence of the governor general, Sir Cuthbert Sebastian, a retired physician of some distinction and a great friend of Hazel's late father, Esbon Ross. Around the cemetery's perimeter stretches a faltering, wrought-iron fence featuring the elaborate fretwork of a long-dead island craftsman. Lining the fence to the south are very old, very rare trees that can best be likened in appearance to what giant bonsai trees would look like were they bowing under crowns of orange berries.

Running between the cemetery's southern perimeter and the William Connor Primary School situated directly across from it is upper Cayon Street, down which I was headed when I saw what startled me. There were at least twenty prisoners deployed loosely on the cemetery grounds, all flailing machetes against errant patches of guinea grass. Standing with his back turned to at least half of his charges, some of whom were working at a distance hard against the four-foot fence, was a lone policeman, again armed only with a slender nightstick.

I took in this sight from a crosswalk at which I had been stopped by a uniformed woman crossing guard who was shepherding a large group of Connor School six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds across Cayon Street. The children were on their way home for lunch by way of the cemetery and the machete-wielding prisoners. There were several pedestrians on the sidewalk. Two people in a late-model Toyota had stopped on the other side of the crosswalk.

I looked at them as they distractedly watched the children climb the steps and move onto the paved path leading through the cemetery grounds.

No one did anything. The policeman. The crossing guard. The onlookers. The children. The prisoners. Well, no one did anything unless you count the pleasantries that two machete-wielding prisoners exchanged with a lead group of three six-year-old girls clad in gaily colored blouses and plaid jumpers.

I had never seen anything like this before and had difficulty understanding its meaning. Of course, serious crimes are committed here just as they are in any country in the world. And those who commit them here are not working with machetes on public works details. Still one feels remarkably safer here than one does in virtually any part of the United States, where a postal stamp cannot be purchased without anxiety. People had always robbed people in America. And sometimes the victims were hurt or killed. Indeed that happens here, not frequently, but still more than it once did.

Still, the majority of the people who commit crimes here appear to do so largely for material gain and seem not to have lost their basic humanity. They have not been turned into creatures of universal dread, which seems to be very much the case in America, where some general unparticularized anger has metastasized throughout American society, producing in its wake a new generation of Americans who kill people whom they do not know for no other reason than the sheer sick satisfaction of killing them.

You can't imagine what the “greatest” country in the world looks like from here. A nursing student in Arizona shoots two of his teachers to death in front of students, presumably because he was barred from taking an exam. A prostitute murders a string of customers. Two little blond brothers murder their father. In the Northwest, an employee murders most of his coworkers. In the Midwest, students who are not part of the “popular” group murder the students who are. Nationwide, children are kidnapped, molested, and murdered. Then there are the robbers who methodically murder everyone on the target premises. The killer who buries his victims in the yard. The killer who buries his victims under the floorboards. The killer who entombs his victims in concrete. The killer who chops his victims up, refrigerates them, and eats them. The young handsome killer who decapitates his victim and flees to Israel with his father's blessing.

I had begun, while in any public place in America, to watch everyone, every gesture, every motion, every hand retrieved from every pocket. I had begun to map out escape routes from post office lines, movie theaters, and fast-food stores. I had begun to do a quick security recon on even the smallest crowds I encountered. I had even begun to give winos a wider berth.

From here, where prisoners do their chores cheek by jowl with the populace, America appears a very troubled place. It wasn't always like this. When I was a child in the forties and fifties people left house doors open, keys in cars, and no one had ever heard of an alarm system.

The truth put squarely is that I am spent, having fought too many American social battles that should never, in a more decent society, have presented themselves as such to begin with. I am no longer a normal person, as it were, preoccupied, as I have been constrained to be, with race and all the wearying baggage that rakes heavily in its train. But, of course, America had scarcely noticed me, not least that I was weary, preoccupied as America was with the taxing obsession of its unrelenting self-adoration. All along, I hadn't really needed all that much. Once it may have been enough to know only who was responsible. An official confession of all the lurid details, a report, for once, of brutally candid self-investigation, a book from on high of awful truths about what all had been done to me and why. A compendious volume replete with the beneficiary's moldy detailed records, journals, charts, graphs, ship manifests, U.S. Treasury receipts, contracts, balance sheets, pictures, plans, pen-and-ink drawings, memoirs of my 346-year-long legal destruction. The long overdue mea culpa that a nation like Brazil, riven with the freight of its own ugly racial past, is brave enough to issue, but America is not. Write the thing, damn it! Explain my stolen story and give it back to me, to the world and, indeed, to that quarter in as much need of it as I, yourself. Ask yourself: Would you have done any better, had you been in my place and I in yours?

I no longer grind my heart against the cold rock of a sightless soul. I know now that this America, that I am, at last, reclaimed to have left, uncoupled, at last of its glittering spiritual anchorage, could never confess any wrongdoing, small or large, old or new, the powerful feeling, now more than ever, no need to learn, in the nation's middle age, the painful craft of moral honesty.

But still you must understand that I, like any other human being, needed to know things about who I was. A need felt in an earnest child's breast all the more pressing because you had metronomically instructed my parents, and theirs, and theirs, that they and I had originated in a dark forest of savages. I hadn't believed this. Quite. Maybe. Not all of it anyway, my tender child's spirit fighting for its life much too early, before my bones had finished forming, before I scarcely knew what race was, before, long before, I learned that some would never even notice my humanity. Who could have done such a thing? What had I done to anyone on high by the small age of five?

Meet the Author

Randall Robinson is the founder and former president of TransAfrica, the African-American advocacy organization he established to promote constructive and enlightened U.S. policies towards Africa and the Caribbean. The author of the national bestsellers The Reckoning, The Debt, and Defending the Spirit, Mr. Robinson's views on foreign policy and race in America are widely discussed in the American print and television media.

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