Poet Maya Angelou in San Francisco, at the release of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.
A Black couple who had just arrived in Africa sat in our living room explaining their presence on the Continent.
— Because of Nkrumah, (The man pronounced the President’s name NeeKrumah) and Sékou Touré, we decided it was either Ghana or Guinea. We have come to Mother Africa to suckle from her breasts.
The man spoke so vigorously his Afro trembled and his long neck carried his head from side to side. He wore a brightly colored African shirt and reminded me of a large exotic bird.
Alice spoke angrily:
— Hell man, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Talking about sucking from Africa’s breasts. When you were born Black in America, you were born weaned.
— Africa doesn’t need anybody as big as you pulling on her tits.
— And that’s an ugly metaphor.
The man was sparring quickly:
— The Zulus use it.
— But you’re a Black American, I reminded him.
— Yeah. Well, who is to say my ancestors weren’t Zulus?
In just a few months our living room had begun to compete with the Mayfield side porch for popularity. Late nights found us drinking beer and fastidious over even the smallest points in a conversation.
Alice earned her reputation as the most formidable disputant. Having spent her working hours answering telephone calls and receiving embassy visitors, she looked eagerly toward the evenings and weekends. Then she could exercise her sharp mind and quick tongue on anyone within hearing range.
The wise Vicki said:
— What Africa needs is help. After centuries of slavers taking her strongest sons and daughters, after years of colonialism, Africa needs her progeny to bring something to her.
Alice grinned, warming up. She said:
— I’ve never seen Africa as a woman, and somewhere I resent the use of any sexual pronoun to describe this complex continent. It’s not he or she. It is more an it.
The visitors looked disapprovingly at us all. The need to believe in Africa’s maternal welcome was painfully obvious. They didn’t want to know that they had not come home, but had left one familiar place of painful memory for another strange place with none.
The woman, whose large natural matched her husband’s, sat like a broken doll. Her brown face was still, her dark eyes flat and staring. I would not have been too surprised had she cried, “Maa Maa, Maa Maa” in a tiny toy voice.
— The Sahara continues to eat up arable land at a frightening rate, and nomadic people continue to herd cattle which eat every blade of grass that pops up. What the continent needs is about five hundred artesian well diggers and about five hundred agronomists. That would have been a gift “to bring.”
Fulani cattle herders. Nomads of Niger (C. Beckwith & Marion van Offelen, 1983)
— I belong here. My ancestors were taken from this land.
The visitor was fighting back.
— Of course, you’re right, Vicki’s voice was soothing. And under ideal conditions you could return and even lay claim to an ancestral inheritance.
But Alice has a good point. The continent is poor, and while Ghanaians have wonderful spirits, thanks to themselves and Kwame Nkrumah, they are desperate.
— What did you do at home? What is your work?
The man was still silent, and I had spoken only to put sound into the sad silence.
Vicki offered advice:
— Ghana would be easier than Guinea, unless you speak French.
The woman’s voice was a surprisingly rich contralto.
— He worked in the Chicago stockyards, and I was a Bunny.
She got our total and immediate attention. Although she wore no makeup and a sleeved dress of a demure cut, it was easy to imagine her in a bunny costume. She muttered just above a whisper:
— We’ve been saving for two years.
Her husband stood up scowling:
— Don’t tell them anything, Hon. It’s just like Negroes. They are here, in their own place, and they don’t want us in. Just like crabs in a bucket. Pulling the other one down. When will you people learn? Let’s go.
They would have been surprised to learn that we were no less annoyed with them than they with us. They were just two more people in an unceasing parade of naïve travelers who thought that an airline ticket to Africa would erase the past and open wide the gates to a perfect future. Possibly we saw our now seldom expressed hopes in the ingenuous faces of the new arrivals.
Vicki waved her small hands.
— Wait a minute. You don’t understand.
— Come on, Hon. The taxi driver was wrong.
— What taxi driver?
The woman answered:
— We don’t know his name. He was driving us around and when he found out we were Americans, he said he was going to take us to a Black American home. That’s how we got here.
We looked at each other knowing the danger of getting a reputation of inhospitability in this country, where we were striving for welcome.
Alice lit a fresh cigarette from an old one.
— I guess because we talk so much, folks have the idea that we know something, so Black Americans come here or to Julian Mayfield’s house. We weren’t trying to discourage you from staying in Ghana. We just wanted to prepare you for what you might, no, what you will encounter so you won’t be disappointed.
— Sort of immunizing you before you get the disease.
— We’re trying to explain that if you expect Africans to open their arms and homes to you, you’ll be in for a terrible shock. Not that they will be unkind. Never unkind, but most of them will be distant. One problem, of course, is our inability to speak the language. Without a language it is very difficult to communicate.
Congress of the Partisans of Peace, Paris, 1949, from lett Peter Blackman (1909-1993), Paul Robeson (1898-1976), W.E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963).
The man’s anger had propelled him to the door. I touched his sleeve and said:
— Don’t rush off. Have dinner with us.
All people use food for more reasons than mere nutrition, and I was hoping that in the present case it would work to calm our visitors’ ruffled feathers.
The husband acted as if he still wanted to leave, but was persuaded by his wife to stay.
As I had hoped, they relaxed during dinner and allowed themselves to be charmed by Alice, who worked at being her clever best. She made them laugh at her Chicago stories, Vicki related tales of Paul Robeson, and I talked about my years in show business.
We stood at the door saying good-bye when the man, all seriousness again, shook Alice’s hand.
— I think we’ll go to Guinea. If we have to learn a foreign language to be accepted in Africa, we may as well learn French.
The woman waved.
— We certainly appreciate the dinner and your advice. Hope we meet again.
That they had missed our clearly made points boded well for them. They just might succeed in their search for the illusive Africa, which secreted itself when approached directly, like a rain forest on a moonless night. Africa might just deliver itself into their hands because they matched its obliqueness.
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