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Maya Angelou, Women Poets ConferenceMaya Angelou, Women Poets Conference

Maya Angelou
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.

Chapter 42

Maya “departs” from Ghana

A few days later at Accra’s airport I was surrounded by family and friends. Guy stood, looking like a young lord of summer, straight, sure among his Ghanaian companions. Kwesi Brew, T. D. Bafoo and their wives were there to bid me farewell. Efua and her children, Nana’s brood of six, Grace Nuamah and other colleagues from Legon, Sheikhali and Mamali, and some Nigerian acquaintances milled through the crowd. Julian hugged me:
— Be strong, girl. Be very strong.
Nana’s car appeared on the tarmac, and coming through a private door he joined the well-wishers. I drank with each party, and gave and received generous embraces, but I was not sad departing Ghana.
Many years earlier I, or rather someone very like me and certainly related to me, had been taken from Africa by force.
This second leave-taking would not be so onerous, for now I knew my people had never completely left Africa. We had sung it in our blues, shouted it in our gospel and danced the continent in our breakdowns. As we carried it to Philadelphia, Boston and Birmingham we had changed its color, modified its rhythms, yet it was Africa which rode in the  bulges of our high calves, shook in our protruding behinds and crackled in our wide open laughter.
I could nearly hear the old ones chuckling.

The End.

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Maya Angelou
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

Chapter 31
[Malcolm X – Part 3]

The Chinese Residency was festive with lights and music on Malcolm’s last night in Ghana and our jollity matched the atmosphere. Vicki was being courted by the Chinese delegation. They offered her a trip to China and an opportunity to stay there and teach. Alice had applied for a job with the E.C.A., based in Addis Ababa, and her chances looked good.
We wore our prettiest dresses and best smiles and when we entered the large salon our hosts greeted us as if they had hardly been able to await our arrival. (After a few minutes I noticed that they greeted each new guest as generously.) Julian and Ana Livia were already there with Malcolm mingling in the crowded room. Drinks were brought on large trays and a pretty variety of foods waited on buffets.
The Cuban ambassador and his glamorous wife were talking earnestly with Malcolm when Shirley Du Bois entered. She was a medium-sized, light brown-skinned woman with large eyes, a long attractive face and the confidence of Mount Kilimanjaro. After being welcomed by those in her path, she walked immediately to Malcolm and, taking him by the arm, guided him to a corner where they sat.
The guests swirled around each other, exchanging conversational partners as if they were participants in a jamboree. After nearly an hour, Shirley and Malcolm emerged from their retreat and rejoined the party.
Shirley said loudly:
— This man is brilliant. I am taking him for my son. He must meet Kwame. They have too much in common not to meet.
On that decisive statement she took her leave. Malcolm spent a few more minutes talking with our hosts, then Julian said since Malcolm was to travel the next morning he would drive him to the Continental Hotel.
I was in a rage when I drove my housemates home.
— Are you ready for Shirley Du Bois? ‘I’m taking him for my son.’ Hell, before she wouldn’t even see him. I can’t stand that.
Alice and Vicki let me rant alone. I didn’t mind that they acted indifferent to Shirley’s belated acceptance of Malcolm, I was enjoying my anger.
We were ready for bed when the telephone rang. Alice answered it, while Vicki and I stood by nervously. No one in Accra telephoned after eleven o’clock, save to announce a crisis.
Alice hung up the phone and turned to us. She was somewhere between laughing and crying.
— Kwame Nkrumah will see Malcolm at nine o’clock in the morning. Julian is taking him to Flagstaff House.
Vicki whooped and hollered, “Success! Success!” She grabbed me, then Alice, then me again. Alice was a little stunned and I was furious.
I said:
— Shirley went straight home and called the President and told him he had to see Malcolm. She could have done that a week ago, but no.
Alice agreed, but Vicki said:
— Better late than never. You all ought to be celebrating, I say.
For me sleep was difficult difficult that night. My bed was lumpy with anger and my pillow a rock of intemperate umbrage.
The next morning we met Malcolm after his visit with President Nkrumah. The bright sunshine, the bougainvillaea and the singing birds around the hotel didn’t brighten my countenance. I claimed to be saddened by Malcolm’s pending departure, but in fact my heart was still hardened to Shirley Du Bois. Rather than inquire about the Nkrumah interview, I stood apart pouting, while Alice snapped photos and Julian put Malcolm’s luggage in the car. A convoy of limousines glided up importantly to the hotel’s porte-cochere. Small flags waved from the hoods of luxury cars, which meant that each car carried an ambassador.
Alice said there must be some diplomatic meeting, and began to pose Malcolm and Julian for a picture. As she finished, the Nigerian High Commissioner approached.
— My people, good morning. Brother Malcolm, morning. A few of us have come to accompany you to the airport.
The gesture was so unexpected that even Malcolm was speechless.
The Nigerian diplomat continued:
— The Chinese, Guinea, Yugoslav, Mali, Cuban, Algerian and Egyptian ambassadors are here. Others wanted to come but national matters detained them. We will pull up and onto the road as you will want to ride with your friends. We will follow.
Julian was the first to speak to Malcolm after the High Commissioner left us.
— Man, we ought to pay you for this visit. You’ve given this poor group of Black exiles some status. Forty-five minutes with the president and now a convoy of limousines to see you to the airport. Man! We were living here before, but after your visit we have really arrived.
We were all laughing with pleasure when we heard the familiar sounds of Black American speech. We turned around and saw Muhammad Ali coming out of the hotel with a large retinue of Black men. They were all talking and joking among themselves. One minute after we saw them, they saw Malcolm.
The moment froze, as if caught on a daguerreotype, and the next minutes moved as a slow montage. Muhammad stopped, then turned and spoke to a companion. His friends looked at him. Then they looked back at Malcolm. Malcolm also stopped, but he didn’t speak to us, nor did any of us have the presence of mind to say anything to him. Malcolm had told us that after he severed ties to the Nation of Islam, many of his former friends had become hostile.
Muhammad and his group were the first to turn away. They started walking toward a row of parked cars. Malcolm, with a rush, left us and headed toward the departing men. We followed Malcolm. He shouted:
— Brother Muhammad. Brother Muhammad.
Muhammad and his companions stopped and turned to face Malcolm.
— Brother, I still love you, and you are still the greatest. Malcolm smiled a sad little smile. Muhammad looked hard at Malcolm, and shook his head.
— You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.
His face and voice were also sad. Malcolm had been his supporter and hero. Disappointment and hurt lay on Muhammad’s face like dust. Abruptly, he turned and walked away. His coterie followed. After a few steps they began talking again, loudly.
Malcolm’s shoulders sagged and his face was suddenly gloomy.
— I’ve lost a lot. A lot. Almost too much.
He led us back to my car.
— I want to ride with Maya and Julian. We’ll meet at the airport.
Alice and the other friends rode with Ana Livia and three six-footers tried to be comfortable in my little Fiat. Even when we saw the diplomat’s limousines following us, the heavy mood seemed destined to stay.
Malcolm broke the silence.
— Now, Sister, what do you think of Shirley Du Bois? The question gave me a chance to articulate my anger, and I let loose. I spoke of her lack of faith, her lack of identity with Black “American struggle, her isolation from her people, her pride at sitting in the catbird seat in Ghana. Malcolm let me continue until my tirade wound down.
— Now, Sister, I thought you were smart, but I see you are very childish, dangerously immature.
He had not spoken so harshly before to anyone in Ghana—I was shocked.
— Have you considered that her husband has only been dead a few months? Have you considered that at her age she needs some time to consider that she is walking around wounded, limping for the first time in many years on one leg?
Tears were bathing my face, not for the sad picture Malcolm was drawing of Shirley, but for myself as the object of his displeasure.
Julian, from his uncomfortable seat in the back of the car, put his hand on my shoulder gently:
— Keep your eyes on the road.
Malcolm said:
— Sister, listen and listen carefully. Picture American racism as a mountain. Now slice that mountain from the top to the bottom and open it like a door. Do you see all the lines, the strata?
I could hardly see the road ahead, but I nodded.
— Those are the strata of American life and we are being attacked on each one. We need people on each level to fight our battle. Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.
His voice had become more explanatory and less accusatory.
— When you hear that the Urban League or the NAACP is giving a formal banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, I know you won’t go, but don’t knock them. They give scholarships to poor Black children. One of those recipients might become a Julian Mayfield, or a Maya Angelou, or a Malcolm X. You understand?
I would have died rather than say I disagreed. I said:
— I will think about that.
He said:
— I can’t ask anymore. I admire all of you. Our people can be proud. Julian will tell you about my meeting with Nkrumah. I wanted to ride with you to encourage you to broaden your thinking. You are too good a woman to think small. You know we, I mean in the United States and elsewhere, are in need of hard thinkers. Serious thinkers, who are not timid. We are called upon to defend ourselves all the time. In every arena.
Malcolm had lost his harshness and seemed to be reflecting rather than addressing either me or Julian.
Julian asked him if Muhammad’s actions at the hotel came as a surprise, and Malcolm did not answer directly.
— He is young. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad is his prophet and his father, I understand. Be kind to him for his sake, and mine. He has a place in my heart.
At the airport, the ambassadors and other well-wishers swooped him away. Alice had time to arrange him for one last photo and we all shook his hand and hugged him.
Julian said in a forbidding tone:
— Man, I don’t like to see you traveling alone. You know there’s a price on your head.
Malcolm smiled.
— No one can guard anyone’s life. Not even his own. Only Allah can protect. And He has let me slide so far.
He smiled for us all and then was gone.
The letdown affected our speech. There seemed to be no words to describe what we were feeling. We regarded each other with embarrassment. Malcolm’s presence had elevated us, but with his departure, we were what we had been before: a little group of Black folks, looking for a home.

Continued …

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Poet 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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Up to 1986, Maya Angelou had successively written four autobiographical and highly acclaimed books:

  1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970
  2. Gather Together in My Name, 1974
  3. Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, 1976
  4. The Heart of a Woman, 1981

In 1986 she published the fifth volume titled All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (Random House. 210 pages.). The book shares an important milestone in Maya Angelou’s journey and experience.  As Professor Albert M. Greenfield put it in a review for the New York Times (May 11, 1986), the story unfolds in “the early 1960’s in Ghana, where Miss Angelou is teaching at the University of Ghana and working as an editor. In Accra, she joins a number of Afro-Americans, ‘“a little group of Black folks, looking for a home.” Kwame Nkrumah‘s Ghana became a haven for black Americans during the late 50’s and early 60’s, and Miss Angelou provides glimpses of people like the black novelist Julian Mayfield and the activist Malcolm X in a Ghanaian landscape. More captivating, however, are her own episodic engagements with a homeland that refuses to become “home.” Though independence and prosperity make Ghana a festival in black, there is no point of connection between Miss Angelou and what she calls the “soul” of Africa. She speculates that perhaps “only the African living in total despair, pressed down by fate, refused, rejected and abandoned” can understand the sound of “homely” Afro-American spirituals and know that home is the place where one is created.”

Maya Angelou devotes her work “… to Julian Mayfield and Malcolm X  and all the fallen ones who were passionately and earnestly looking for a home.”

The book opens with the famous gospel song so memorably rendered by Louis Armstrong:

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.”

Follow this link for the  first of  a series of large excerpts from All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

Tierno S. Bah

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