MAYA ANGELOU (2) By CAMERON DUODU
In May 1964, my novelist friend, Julian Mayfield, told me that Malcolm X had come to Ghana! He, Maya Angelou and a few other African-Americans, including a soft-spoken but very serious and hard-working lady called Alice Windome, had formed an organising committee for the visit and were taking Malcolm round to meet important Ghanaians and to get him to explain the black American struggle for freedom and civil rights to them. Their first port of call was to be the Press Club in Accra, where they wanted Malcolm to explain in detail, his own peculiar position in the Black Struggle, since the Western media had been full of reports on how violent the methods he preached about were, and how his speeches were full of hatred for whites.
At the time, Ghana was at a most interesting point in its political development. Seven years had passed since we achieved our independence, and President Kwame Nkrumah had definitely decided that his government was going to be a “socialist” one. But what brand of socialism were we to adopt? This was the subject of a heated debate inside and outside Dr Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party.
Policy was evolving all the time. Reports had it that Malcolm X was organising the Black Muslims – nominally under the leadership of an ageing Elijah Muhammad but in actual fact under the intellectual tutelage of Malcolm X himself – to
use violent methods to cause a revolution in the USA, which would achieve for its black population, the freedom and economic advancement that had been denied to them for centuries.
Julian Mayfield trusted in the integrity and justness of Malcolm X’s message. But he knew that it would pose difficulties for Dr Kwame Nkrumah, who, at that time, was engaged in a delicate relationship with the US Government, which was helping Ghana with finance for the Volta River Dam being constructed at Akosombo. Already, Dr Nkrumah’s socialist pronouncements had annoyed the American Government a great deal. The last thing he needed therefore was to play host to a wild-eyed revolutionary from the USA, who would be making inflammatory remarks about the country without whose continued assistance the Akosombo Dam might never be built.
Julian wanted Malcolm X to hold a press conference at the Ghana Press Club, where Nkrumah’s “socialist boys” and party press guys – Eric Heymann of the Evening News, T D Baffoe of The Ghanaian Times and Kofi Batsa of The Spark – all hung out. Now, I was on the executive committee of the Press Club, and Julian tactfully avoided seeking my support overtly, for he knew that I always spoke my mind – a trait that wasn’t too popular with the Party Press boys! He didn’t press me to take a position, but I think he knew me well enough to anticipate where my sympathies would lie.
As things turned out, Julian didn’t need to worry: my own spontaneous reactions were adequate to deal with the situation. For when we met, the party press boys opposed the idea of giving Malcolm a platform on the grounds that that there were whites from socialist countries in Europe – as well as from the Communist Party of South Africa (such as the influential Ghanaian Times columnist, H M Basner) — who had come to stay in Ghana and were sincerely helping in Ghana’s economic and social development. We should be careful not to offend them with vitriolic messages about “white devils” (the name Malcolm X was reputed to have allocated to all whites). “The man is a racist. We don’t want any racist ideas in Ghana!” someone burst out.
Besides, another argued, Malcolm X was a devout Muslim. The policy of a socialist party, such as the CPP claimed to be, was based on “scientific socialism” , which was atheistic in content. “How can we be be seen to be encouraging religious dogmas, especially, ultra-religious ones, such as the Black Muslims espouse?” he queried.
Unfortunately it was not the virtue of the party press guys to read widely outside political ideology. So I had a weapon with which to diffused their arguments. In the belief that a good newsman should be composed of information from head to toe, I just read everything I could lay hands on. Through this innate curiosity, I had somehow come across a very lengthy interview that the American magazine, Playboy, had conducted with Malcolm X. They had, unusually, published the questions and answers verbatim. It had been a breakthrough publication, for black leaders were not often allowed by the US media to talk about themselves or explain in detail, their opposition to segregation and what their true objectives were, with regard to civil rights.
Of course, make no mistake about it: I did not read Playboy for its interviews! It always had a centrefold in which a very pretty woman was photographed in all sorts of positions, completely naked! For a young man full of testosterone, the centrefold was an extremely attractive diversion. But Playboy was so cleverly edited that after it had titillated one’s fantasies with naked breasts of all sizes and nipple shape, erect or otherwise, of extremely beautiful women, it gave one serious issues to cogitate on. It was that deliberate philosophy of free discussion that had led them to interview Malcolm X and publish his views unedited, over a huge amount of pages. Malcolm X had been very clever in not dismissing Playboy as an “unholy” publication and granting the interview (it was conducted by Alex Haley of Roots fame) and Playboy had been prescient in publishing it because it gave the magazine an entrée into male black consciousness.
I had been impressed by the eloquence and logical thinking that Malcolm demonstrated in the interview, and when I saw that the prejudices and misreporting that had been associated with Malcolm would thwart him from being allowed to give his views to the Ghanaian media, I got up and made a persuasive speech to my fellow journalists, stressing the need for us to allow freedom of expression to flourish in reality. How could we think of ourselves as free thinkers who could distinguish between reason and nonsense if we didn’t even give people an opportunity to state their case, in the first place? We could hear a case, and then write editorials about aspects of it we disagreed with, couldn’t we? We were always telling politicians to allow us to exercise freedom of speech; well, we should also allow others – in this case, Malcolm X — to have his say. I then asked scornfully, “Are we saying that a whiteman’s magazine, Playboy, is more intelligent than us? More tolerant of the views of a black leader than us? That Playboy, a borderline pornographic magazine, has a better sense of news value than we do?”
This was a blow to the intellectual solar plexus of my colleagues and they dropped their objections forthwith. Malcolm X was able to address the Ghana Press for over two hours, during which he answered all manner of questions, some as provocative as you like. The reports of his press conference led directly, I imagine, to him being invited by a group of students and lecturers at the University of Ghana, to talk to the University in the Great Hall.
The Great Hall was packed that day, and Malcolm, speaking extempore as usual, gave one of the most elucidating speeches on the Black Struggle I’ve ever heard. He had this preacher’s sing-song voice, which he toned down slightly to that of a very persuasive – almost professorial – discussant. His honesty was patent: he did not even refrain from criticising the Black Americans who came to live and work in Ghana; like those who had been spending sleepless nights in Accra, leading him round! “Don’t be surprised if some of them speak to you with their white master’s voice” he said. “The slave master took out his tongue and inserted his own in their mouths! And that’s been going on for three hundred years.…The slave master also deleted their African names and gave them his own. . . Those same slave masters send us to Europe as soldiers, and we are the best soldiers they’ve got. They send us to Korea, and we are again the best soldiers they’ve got. They send us to Vietnam, and we’re still the best soldiers they’ve got. But when we come back home, they send us to the back of the bus! They won’t let us sit in the front end of the bus, with them!”
I recorded the speech and printed it almost verbatim in my Drum Magazine. It was such a powerful speech that it continues to resonate in my ears to this day.
I have already reported the fact that Drum magazine, under my editorship, had been publishing articles about the Black Struggle in the US and that this had met with appreciation from members of trhe Africa-American community in Ghana. When news of my stand at the Press Club reached them, my stock with them rose even higher. Maya Angelou held my hands and breathed my name out again in that deep mellow voice of hers, looked me up and down, and gave me that gap-toothed smile (known as “egyereh”) that Ghanaian men from certain ethnic groups admire so much. . .
If people who heard Malcolm X only in public could become his life-long disciples, just imagine what those who heard him in private did. Maya Angelou was at his side most of the time and she became a disciple of his.
She began to work closely with Malcolm X to form a new organisation from that period. By then, Malcolm’s had criticised the hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad, and his message had evolved and become more cosmopolitan. A visit to Mecca even convinced him that whites could be counted upon to become the brothers of the blacks with whom they prayed together in the mosques in Saudi Arabia. Malcolm X then envisioned that he could unite the Islamic world behind the African-Americans, and get the Middle Eastern countries them to support a move by Black Americans and their African supporters to indict the US at the United Nations, over racism.
Malcolm X had also begun to mellow about Martin Luther King, whom he had previously regarded as being close to an “Uncle Tom” because whilst the National Guard and the racist police were beating black demonstrators about the head with rife butts and setting police dogs and water-hoses on them (in places Little Rock, Arkansas) Dr King was still talking about a peaceful way of achieving equality. Malcolm now told close associates like Maya that he was prepared to unite with Martin Luther King to achieve the goals of civil rights that they were both fighting for – King with his non-violent methods, and Malcolm “with every means necessary”. But Malcolm gave a condition for co-operating with Dr King: “If after we have tried your non-violent methods for some time, we realise that we are not achieving our goals, then you must agree, in your turn, to try my methods!”
I am sure that if Malcolm X had lived beyond 1965 – when he was brutally gunned down whilst addressing a meeting in New York – the civil rights movement would have taken a different turn in the subsequent years. One does not need to speculate that it was because of the qualitative change that he was bringing into his struggle, and the greater number of Blacks it would have attracted, that led to his murder. The FBI has still got a lot of questions to answer about that murder, which was made to look like a settling of scores between the Black Muslims and Malcolm, whereas some of the murderers were said to have shadowy relationships with the FBI.
Maya Angelou’s books recall such incidents and debates and often give an inside look at what was really happening beneath the surface of the struggle for civil rights. Her works are easily found through a search on Google. As a writer, she was gifted with excellent craftsmanship, with an easy way of telling stories through, and about, people. Almost every situation she described came alive on the page, and her people were people you knew you had met – as soon as you read about their strengths and weaknesses. She milked her life’s story to the full – and who can blame her?
Maya had a very good memory: I can testify to that because she mentioned me in her book, All God’s Children Must Have Running Shoes. And she, like Malcolm X (who was also kind enough to mention my name in his Autobiography), spelt my name right!
I once heard Julian Mayfield relating to Maya and others, a conclusion he and his friend, James Baldwin, had come to about the future of American literature. ”There hasn’t been anyone whose works have been selling as greatly as Ernest Hemingway since Hemingway died!” they had agreed. They fancied themselves replacing Hemingway – by writing best-sellers themselves. In terms of sales and breadness of reader appeal, I think Maya Angelou may well have equalled Hemingway, or even surpassed him. Why? Women did not form too great a part of Hemingway readership, whereas almost as many men read Maya Angelou as women!
Dear Julian Mayfield — were he alive, he would laugh uproariously at the irony contained in that notion I just enunciated. To imagine that Maya Angelou, who was essentially considered to be a student of both himself and James Baldwin, would have grown to fill Hemingway shoes! Or even surpassed Hemingway – because, of course, Maya Angelou is read not as the author of fiction but as the chronicler of hard reality in the Great United States of America in the 20th Century. No-one has ever done it like she did. And in a country whose appetite for real-life stories is second to none, that is no small thing.
Rest In Peace, Maya Angelou. You used to walk the markets of Ghana looking for people who looked like you, so that you could tell them, “Look at me – I am your sister! I’ve come home!” Where you’ve gone, you won’t need to do that. Your pen has told them already what you are, and they will all embrace you and love you.