Excerpt from 'A Song Flung Up to Heaven'
The old ark's a-movering
The old ark was a Pan Am jet and I was returning to the United States. The airplane had originated in Johannesburg and stopped in Accra, Ghana, to pick up passengers.
I boarded, wearing traditional West African dress, and sensed myself immediately, and for the first time in years, out of place. A presentiment of unease enveloped me before I could find my seat at the rear of the plane. For the first few minutes I busied myself arranging bags, souvenirs, presents. When I finally settled into my narrow seat, I looked around and became at once aware of the source of my discomfort. I was among more white people than I had seen in four years. During that period I had not once thought of not seeing white people; there were European, Canadian and white American faculty at the university where I worked. Roger and Jean Genoud, who were Swiss United Nations personnel, had become my close friends and in fact helped me to raise—or better, corral—my teenage son. So my upset did not come from seeing the white complexion, but rather, from seeing so much of it at one time.
For the next seven hours, I considered the life I was leaving and the circumstances to which I was returning. I thought of the difference between the faces I had just embraced in farewell and those on the plane who looked at me and other blacks who also boarded in Accra with distaste, if not outright disgust. I thought of my rambunctious nineteen-year-old son, whom I was leaving with a family of Ghanaian friends. I also left him under the watchful eye and, I hoped, tender care of God, who seemed to be the only force capable of controlling him.
My thoughts included the political climate I was leaving. It was a known fact that antigovernment forces were aligning themselves at that very moment to bring down the regime of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's controversial, much adored but also much hated president. The atmosphere was thick with accusations, threats, fear, guilt, greed and capriciousness. Yet at least all the visible participants in that crowded ambience were black, in contrast to the population in the environment to which I was returning. I knew that the air in the United States was no less turbulent than that in Ghana. If my mail and the world newspapers were to be believed, the country was clamoring with riots and pandemonium. The cry of "burn, baby, burn" was loud in the land, and black people had gone from the earlier mode of "sit-in" to "set fire," and from "march-in" to "break-in."
Malcolm X, on his last visit to Accra, had announced a desire to create a foundation he called the Organization of African-American Unity. His proposal included taking the plight of the African-Americans to the United Nations and asking the world council to intercede on the part of beleaguered blacks. The idea was so stimulating to the community of African-American residents that I persuaded myself I should return to the States to help establish the organization. Alice Windom and Vickie Garvin, Sylvia Boone and Julian Mayfield, African-Americans who lived and worked in Ghana, were also immediate supporters. When I informed them that I had started making plans to go back to America to work with Malcolm, they—my friends, buddies, pals—began to treat me as if I had suddenly become special. They didn't speak quite so loudly around me, they didn't clap my back when laughing; nor were they as quick to point out my flaws. My stature had definitely increased.
We all read Malcolm's last letter to me.
I looked around the plane at the South African faces and thought of Vus Make, my latest husband, from whom I had separated. He and members of the Pan-African Congress and Oliver Tambo, second in command of the African National Congress, really believed they would be able to change the hearts and thereby the actions of the apartheid-loving Boers. In the early sixties I called them Nation Dreamers. When I thought of Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan-African Congress who had languished for years in prison, and Nelson Mandela, who had recently been arrested, I was sure that they would spend their lives sealed away from the world. I had thought that, despite their passion and the rightness of their cause, the two men would become footnotes on the pages of history.
Now, with the new developments about to take place, I felt a little sympathy for the Boers, and congratulated myself and all African-Americans for our courage. The passion my people would exhibit under Malcolm's leadership was going to help us rid our country of racism once and for all. The Africans in South Africa often said they had been inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1958. Well, we were going to give them something new, something visionary, to look up to. After we had cleansed ourselves and our country of hate, they would be able to study our methods, take heart from our example and let freedom ring in their country as it would ring in ours.
Sweet dreams of the future blunted the sharp pain of leaving both my son and the other important man in my life. Given enough time, Guy would eventually grow up and be a fine man, but my romantic other could never fit into my world, nor I into his.
He was a powerful West African who had swept into my life with the urgency of a Southern hurricane. He uprooted my well-planted ideas and blew down all my firmly held beliefs about decorum.
I had been in love many times before I met him, but I had never surrendered myself to anyone. I had given my word and my body, but I had never given my soul. The African had the habit of being obeyed, and he insisted on having all of me. The pleasure I found with him made me unable, or at least unwilling, to refuse.
Within a month of conceding my authority over myself and my life to another, I realized the enormity of my mistake. If I wanted chicken, he said he wanted lamb, and I quickly agreed. If I wanted rice, he wanted yams, and I quickly agreed. He said that I was to go along with whatever he wanted, and I agreed. If I wanted to visit with my friends and he wanted to be alone but not without me, I agreed.
I began to feel the pinch of his close embrace the first time I wanted to sit up and read and he wanted to go to bed.
And, he added, I was needed.
But I thought, "Needed?" Needed like an extra blanket? Like air-conditioning? Like more pepper in the soup? I resented being thought of as a thing, but I had to admit that I allowed the situation myself and had no reason to be displeased with anyone save myself.
Each time I gave up my chicken for his lamb, I ate less. When I gave up a visit with friends to stay home with him, I enjoyed him less. And when I joined him, leaving my book abandoned on the desk, I found I had less appetite for the bedroom.
"You Americans can be bullheaded, stupid and crazy. Why would you kill President Kennedy?" He didn't hear me say, "I didn't kill the president."
My return to the United States came at the most opportune time. I could leave my son to his manly development hurdles; I would leave my great, all-consuming love to his obedient subjects; and I would return to work with Malcolm X on building the Organization of African-American Unity.
By the time we arrived in New York, I had discarded my vilification of the white racists on the plane and had even begun to feel a little more sorry for them.
I was saddened by their infantile, puerile minds. They could be assured that as soon as we American blacks got our country straight, the Xhosas, Zulus, Matabeles, Shonas and others in southern Africa would lead their whites from the gloom of ignorance into the dazzling light of understanding.
The sound in the airport was startling. The open air in Africa was often loud, with many languages being spoken at once, children crying, drums pounding—that had been noise, but at New York's Idlewild Airport, the din that aggressively penetrated the air, insisting on being heard, was clamor. There were shouts and orders, screams, implorings and demands, horns blaring and voices booming. I found a place beside a wall and leaned against it. I had been away from the cacophony for four years, but now I was home.
After I gathered my senses, I found a telephone booth.
I knew I was not ready for New York's strenuous energy, but I needed to explain that to my New York friends. I had written Rosa Guy, my supportive sister-friend, and she was expecting me. I also needed to call Abbey Lincoln, the jazz singer, and her husband, Max Roach, the jazz drummer, who had offered me a room in their Columbus Avenue apartment that I had refused. But most especially, I had to speak to Malcolm.
His telephone voice caught me off guard. I realized I had never spoken to him on the telephone.
"Maya, so you finally got here. How was the trip?" His voice was higher-pitched than I expected.
"You stay at the airport, I'll be there to pick you up. I'll leave right now."
I interrupted. "I'm going straight to San Francisco. My plane leaves soon."
"I thought you were coming to work with us in New York."
"I'll be back in a month . . ." I explained that I needed to be with my mother and my brother, Bailey, just to get used to being back in the United States.
Malcolm said, "I had to leave my car in the Holland Tunnel. Somebody was trying to get me. I jumped in a white man's car. He panicked. I told him who I was, and he said, 'Get down low, I'll get you out of this.' You believe that, Maya?"
I said yes, but I found it hard to do so. "I'll call you next week when I get my bearings."
Malcolm said, "Well, let me tell you about Betty and the girls." I immediately remembered the long nights in Ghana when our group sat and listened to him talk about the struggle, racism, political strategies and social unrest. Then he would speak of Betty. His voice would soften and take on a new melody. We would be told of her great intelligence, of her beauty, of her wit. How funny she was and how faithful. We would hear that she was an adoring mother and a brave and loving wife.
Malcolm said, "She is here now and making a wonderful dinner. You know she is pretty and pregnant. Pretty pregnant." He laughed at his own joke.
I said, "Please give her my regards. I must run for my plane. I'll call you next week."
"Do that. Safe trip."