A native son finds a better home
Randall Robinson left America behind, but he's not finished critiquing his homeland's flaws
It's not that Randall Robinson hates America. It's just that this country has consistently disappointed him and all people of color, he claims in his new book, "Quitting America." And in case someone responds, "If you don't like it, why don't you leave?" - he did.
The founder and former president of Transafrica, Robinson has made a career of criticizing American domestic and foreign policies. In "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks" (1999), Robinson argued that the United States should pay reparations to blacks, who still struggle to emerge from the crippling effects of slavery. He countered claims that much had been done to repair historic crimes by insisting that the past is not so easily dismissed.
Three weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, Robinson officially "quit" the US and moved to St. Kitts-Nevis, the small Caribbean island nation where his wife had been born. "Quitting America" details the circumstances that prompted him to leave, in prose that is alternately lyrical, logical, and furious.
Speaking of the fresh perspective afforded him by living outside America's borders, Robinson notes, "You can't imagine what the 'greatest' country in the world looks like from here."
Beleaguered by serial murderers, school shootings, and child kidnappings, America, he says, also continues to practice racism at the highest levels of society and government. It's a dismal vision, especially when contrasted with life on St. Kitts-Nevis, where island residents cannot do enough for each other, where the crime rate is minimal, where people still trust their neighbors. Robinson concludes that "tiny, modest-living St. Kitts ...
is a healthier society" than America, although the picture of island life sometimes seems romanticized.
What else is wrong with America? Its current leadership, Robinson claims. Indeed, he minces no words and spares the president nothing, bluntly asking, "How could so average a man, one so unremarkably endowed with intellect, wisdom, and even, suspiciously, courage, have given over to him charge of the world?" And the lopsidedness of American political culture is depicted in extreme terms, as a system in which "poor white truck drivers vote for rich white Republicans."
Robinson has even harsher words for black Americans who serve in Bush's administration, referring to them as "go-along-to-get-along blacks." He reserves the severest criticism for Secretary of State Colin Powell, whom he considers an ineffective advocate for other African Americans: "America has progressed to not caring that Mr. Powell is black, so long as Mr. Powell himself makes no persistent brief for blacks who are put upon and disadvantaged because of their race."
Indeed, here rests the book's weakest point: While Robinson's sarcastic skills are extraordinary, his bitter tone will make some readers close the book before pondering his evidence.
The book's strongest aspect is its discussion of America's unapologetic expansion into the rest of the world. Robinson offers history lessons on the country's relationship with Haiti as a case in point. He highlights Iraq as yet another example of what he characterizes as a brutish, ethnocentric American foreign policy, and he mourns that Americans are not more openly and aggressively rejecting it.
To illustrate the kind of principled stance he advocates, Robinson recounts an incident when he was called to accept an honorary degree from Georgetown University. The morning of the ceremony, he sat in his D.C. hotel and read the morning paper, which featured an article about George Tenet. The CIA director had been a keynote speaker at one of Georgetown's graduation exercises the previous day.
In this chapter, entitled "Morality," Robinson details the qualms he suddenly felt at accepting an award from an institution that would also honor Tenet, "an ardent architect and exponent of the president's war against Iraq." After much thought, Robinson declined the degree and explained to the university's officers, "I cannot accept your honor. For in my view, Georgetown University yesterday disqualified itself of the moral authority to bestow one."
Living on an island paradise has done nothing to mellow this author. "Quitting America" is frank and angry, so much so that some will certainly question Robinson's aggressive style and reject his book out of hand. But readers who persist will find a minority point of view that's difficult to hear in the mainstream media. It's the kind of voice that startles conventional wisdom with its unfamiliar perspective. And given the importance of the issues involved, the perspective of an critical outsider - who used to be an insider - is worth considering.
• Susan Muaddi Darraj is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.