BILL Berkeley owes his career in journalism to James Agee, the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Depression-era classic about the poor of the rural South. Berkeley, whose article on South Africa appears in this issue, made Agee’s book the focus of his senior thesis at Harvard. Hoping to interview some of Agee’s subjects, Berkeley traveled to Alabama, where a few still remembered Agee and his associate, the photographer Walker Evans—and still resented them. A woman whose childhood photo was used on the cover of the book asked Berkeley,
“What right did that man have to put my picture on the cover of his book?” She had been wearing a potato sack, and was ashamed of her family’s poverty.
Her question brought home to Berkeley the sometimes complex role—partner and exploiter, sympathizer and critic, friend and enemy—of the journalist. It was a role Berkeley thought he would find challenging. After graduation he took a job as a reporter on an Alabama daily, for which he wrote a piece using the quotation above from the woman above—for which, doing unto Berkeley what she wanted to do unto Agee, she sued him. Things got no easier for Berkeley after he became a freelance foreign correspondent based in Africa. Following an expose he had written of the human-rights abuses committed by Liberia’s tormentors du jour, Berkeley was warned that if he returned to Liberia, he would be killed. (He did return, after that regime was toppled.)
Berkeley has written three pieces for The Atlantic—one on Liberia (published in December, 1992), one on Zaire (August, 1993), and the article in the current issue—and each partakes of that incendiary journalistic quality. In much of Africa the truth is so relentlessly appalling that telling it can amount to a subversive act. Having just won a prestigious Alicia Patterson fellowship to write a major study of ethnic conflict, Berkeley will soon be returning to Africa, and from there he will continue his unauthorized reporting for this magazine. — THE EDITORS