June 2014 – Page 5 of 5

Maya Angelou
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

Chapter 12

The telephone call brought unsettling news. The secretary’s voice simply said:
— You are wanted at the Ghanaian Times
I sped to the office building, accompanied by nervous excitement. Had my article been accepted, or had the editor discovered what I already knew; that in order to write about the United States, capitalism and racial prejudice one needed a lifetime, three hundred thousand words, and a lot of luck?
T. D. Bafoo was on his feet when I arrived at his desk.
— Maya!
He waved my pages at me and as usual spoke in short explosions.
— This is good, Sister! You Black Americans know a thing or two, don’t you?
He spoke too quickly for me to respond.
— We will have a new baby, you know?
I didn’t.
— And we will invite you to the outdooring, in the country.
An outdooring is the first African rite of passage. It always begins at dawn, eight days after the child’s birth, and gives family and friends a chance to see and welcome the newest soul.
— I am asking Alice, Vicki, and Julian and others! Come! Black Americans must see how we salute life! Party! We have a great party for life! Come to my house, here tonight in Accra. Greet my wife. I will tell you how to come to us in Kanda.
I thanked him, took his address, smiled and was again left standing as he hurried away.

Chapter 13

The modesty of T. D.’s pretty bungalow was surprising. He was a Big Man, and even in Nkrumah‘s best of all worlds, Big Men often lived in coarse ostentation. Some owned huge castle-like houses and were driven by chauffeurs through the streets of Ghana in Mercedes-Benzes and limousines. Although most cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, government administrators, and wealthy businessmen wore the common matching shirt and pants which had been popularized by the President, their wealth and power were not held in secret. Wives, mistresses, girlfriends, and female relatives were known to wear heavy gold necklaces and bracelets to market and to import expensive furniture from Europe. It was not unknown for some Big Men and their women to treat the servant class as slaves. They were generally unpopular, and in safe company they were ridiculed, but their power was threatening and little was said of them in public.
A smiling T. D. met me at the door.
— Sister, come, come inside. You are finally here. You are at home, and meet my wife. Come, we will eat foo foo and garden eggs.
Although he still spoke as if he needed to cram everything into one sentence, he was a quieter man in his own house.
His wife was a tall, brown woman with an earnest face and a beautiful voice, and was very pregnant. She smiled and took my hand.
— Sister Maya. Akwaba. Welcome. I am making chicken for you, since you can’t eat fish.
T. D. grinned:
— Sister, news travels in Ghana. We know everything or nothing. Come, we will have beer. What do you like?
Beer preferences were fiercely defended or opposed. The two vying brands were Star and Club.
— I’m a Club person myself.
I spoke as proudly as I had heard Ghanaians do.
— Ye! Ye! I knew you were okay. I am Club too. All Star drinkers are untrustworthy. Differences between good and bad beer drinkers are stronger than the imperialist introduced divisions between Africans. Don’t you think so, Sister?
T. D. laughed like a boy and took me into his study.
— We will drink in here.
He spoke to his wife:
— Join us when you can.
We sat down in a room crowded with books and papers and magazines. Mrs. Bafoo spoke from the doorway:
— Kwesi, are you going to give Sister Maya your famous speech? You would do better if you stand on the chair. She entered carrying beer and laughing.
T. D. had the grace to drop his head. When he looked at me his eyes were sharp with mischief.
— Sister, I am Fanti. This woman is a nurse, but she is also an Ewe. A terrible mixture. Nurses think they know the body and Ewes think they know the mind. Oh boy, what have I married?
I spent the afternoon eating with my fingers and listening to T. D.’s political discussions.  I experimented with my Fanti, much to the amusement of my hosts, and found that while I had a reasonable vocabulary, my melody was not in tune. T. D. suggested I pick up Ewe, but when I heard Mrs. Bafoo sing-speak her language, I decided I would continue struggling to master Fanti.
The couple, throughout the evening, tenderly but relentlessly teased each other about their mixed marriage, laughing at their differences, each gibe a love pat, sweetly intimate.
I left after nightfall with directions to T. D.’s country place, and the feeling that maybe the new friendship would lead me behind the modern face of Ghana and I could get a glimpse of Africa’s ancient tribal soul. That soul was a skittish thing. Each time I had approached it, bearing a basket of questions that plagued me, it withdrew, closed down, disguising itself into sensual pleasantries. It had many distracting guiles.
The musical names of Ghana’s cities were lovely on the tongue and caressing to the ears; Kumasi (Koo mah see), Koforidua (Ko fo rid you ah), Mpraeso (Um prah eh so). Ghanaians boasted that Accra and Sekondi were old towns showing proof of trade with Europeans in the fifteenth century. I loved to imagine a long-dead relative trading in those marketplaces, fishing from that active sea and living in those exotic towns, but the old anguish would not let me remain beguiled.
Unbidden would come the painful reminder — “Not all slaves were stolen, nor were all slave dealers European.” Suppose my great-grandfather was enslaved in that colorful town by his brother. Imagine my great-grandmother traded by her sister in that marketplace.
Were those laughing people who moved in the streets with such equanimity today descendants of slave-trading families? Did that one’s ancestor sell mine or did that grandmother’s grandmother grow fat on the sale of my grandmother’s grandmother?
At first when those baleful thoughts interrupted my pleasant reveries I chased them away, only to learn that they had the resistance of new virus and the vitality to pop into my thoughts, unasked, at odd and often awkward times.
So I had been intrigued watching T. D. and his wife using their tribal differences to demonstrate their love. Getting to know them might lay to rest the ugly suspicion that my ancestors had been weak and gullible and were sold into bondage by a stronger and more clever tribe. The idea was hideous, and if true, I was forced to conclude that my own foreparents probably abstained from the brutish sale of others simply because they couldn’t find tribes more gullible and vulnerable than they. I couldn’t decide what would be the most appalling; to be descended from bullies or to be a descendant of dupes.
The Bafoos’ love could erase the idea that African slavery stemmed mostly from tribal  exploitation.

Continued …

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YARPPPoet Maya Angelou in San Francisco, at the release of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970.Poet Maya Angelou in San Francisco, at the release of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

Maya Angelou
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.

Chapter 11

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.
I said:
— Africa doesn’t need anybody as big as you pulling on her tits.
Vicki said:
— 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.
Alice said:
— 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. in C. Beckwith & Marion van Offelen, 1983Fulani 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.
I asked:
— 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.
I asked:
— 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.
Vicki added:
— Sort of immunizing you before you get the disease.
I added:
—  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. Du Bois (1868-1963).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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Maya Angelou
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

Chapter 9

The editor’s office of the Ghanaian Times had all the excitement of a busy city intersection. People came, left, talked, shouted, laid down papers, picked up packages, spoke English, Fanti, Twi, Ga and Pidgin on the telephone or to each other.
T. D. Kwesi Bafoo perched behind his desk as if it was the starting mark for a one hundred yard sprint. At a signal he would leap up and hurl himself past me, through the crowded room and out of the door.
His cheeks, brows, eyes and hands moved even before he talked.
I said, I am a journalist. I’ve brought some examples of my work. These are from the Arab Observer in Cairo. He waved away my folder and said:
— We know who you are. A good writer, and that you are a Nkrumaist
I was certainly the latter and not yet the former.
As he stuffed papers into a briefcase he asked,
— Can you write a piece on America today?
— Today? Do you mean right now?
He looked at me and grinned,
— No. America today. America, capitalism and racial prejudice.
— In one article?
I didn’t want him to know the request was implausible.
He said,
— A sort of overview. You understand?
I asked, seriously:
— How many words, three thousand?
He answered without looking at me:
— Three hundred. Just the high points.
The seething energy would no longer be contained. Bafoo was on his feet and around the desk before I could rise.
— We’ll pay you the standard fee. Have it here by Friday. I have another meeting. Pleasure meeting you. Good-bye.
He passed and disappeared through the door before I had gathered my purse and briefcase. I imagined him running up to the next appointment, arriving there in a heat, simmering during the meeting, then racing away to the next, and on and on. The picture of Mr. Bafoo so entertained me that I was outside on the street before the realization came to me that I had another job which paid the standard fee. I was earning that at the university. In order to afford luxuries I had to look further.

Maya Angelou in Accra, Ghana, 1965Maya Angelou in Accra, Ghana, 1963

The Ghana Broadcasting office was as to the Times newspaper office what a drawing room was to a dance hall. The lobby was large, well furnished and quiet. A receptionist, pretty and dressed in western clothes, looked at me so quizzically, I thought perhaps she knew something I needed to know.
She frowned, wrinkling her careful loveliness.
— Yes? You want to talk to someone about writing? Her voice was as crisp as a freshly starched and ironed doily.
— I said, Yes. I am a writer.
She shook her head:
— But who? Who do you want to talk to?
She couldn’t believe in my ignorance.
I said:
— I don’t know. I suppose the person who hires writers.
— But what is his name?
She had begun to smile, and I heard her sarcasm.
— I don’t know his name. Don’t you know it?
I knew that hostility would gain me nothing but the front door, so I tried to charm her. I mean, surely you know who I should see. I gave her a little submissive smile and knew that if I got a job I’d never speak to her again.
She dismissed my attempt at flattery by saying curtly:
— I am the receptionist. It is my job to know everyone in the building, and picked up the morning paper.
I persisted:
— Well, who should I see?
She looked up from the page and smiled patronizingly:
— You should see who you want to see. Who do you want to see?
She knew herself to be a cat and I was a wounded bird. I decided to remove myself from her grasp. I leaned forward and imitating her accent. I said:
— You silly ass, you can take a flying leap and go straight to hell.
Her smile never changed:
— American Negroes are always crude.
I stood nailed to the floor. Her knowledge of my people could only have been garnered from hearsay, and the few old American movies which tacked on Black characters as awkwardly as the blinded attach paper tails to donkey caricatures.
We were variably excited, exciting, jovial, organic, paranoid, hearty, lusty, loud, raucous, grave, sad, forlorn, silly and forceful. We had all the rights and wrongs human flesh and spirit are heir to. On behalf of my people, I should have spoken. I needed to open my mouth and give lie to her statement, but as usual my thoughts were too many and muddled to be formed into sentences. I turned and left the office.
The incident brought me close to another facet of Ghana, Africa, and of my own mania.
The woman’s cruelty activated a response which I had developed under the exacting tutelage of masters. Her brown skin, curly hair, full lips, wide flanged nostrils notwithstanding, I had responded to her as if she was a rude White salesclerk in an American department store.
Was it possible that I and all American Blacks had been wrong on other occasions? Could the cutting treatment we often experienced have been stimulated by something other than our features, our hair and color? Was the odor of old slavery so obvious that people were offended and lashed out at us automatically? Had what we judged as racial prejudice less to do with race and more to do with our particular ancestors’ bad luck at having been caught, sold and driven like beasts?
The receptionist and I could have been sisters, or in fact, might be cousins far removed. Yet her scorn was no different from the supercilious rejections of Whites in the United States. In Harlem and in Tulsa, in San Francisco and in Atlanta, in all the hamlets and cities of America, Black  people maimed, brutalized, abused and murdered each other daily and particularly on bloody Saturday nights. Were we only and vainly trying to kill that portion of our history which we could neither accept nor deny? The questions temporarily sobered my intoxication with Africa. For a few days, I examined whether in looking for a home I, and all the émigrés, were running from a bitter truth that rode lightly but forever at home on our shoulders.
The company of my companions, Guy’s returning robust health, and Efua’s friendship weened me away from my unease and the questions. I would not admit that if I couldn’t be comfortable in Africa, I had no place else to go.
I turned my back to the niggling insecurities and opened my arms again to Ghana.


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