Maya Angelou's African connection

Maya Angelou's African connection
Source: Ghana | Cameron Duodu |
Date: 27-02-2018 Time: 12:02:43:pm
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Late Maya Angelou

Recalling his reaction to first meeting her, and the political atmosphere that swirled around Accra at the time, this tribute to the late, great Maya Angelou--writer, singer, dancer, civil rights activist--is penned with affection by her friend Cameron Duodu. 

The year 1964 was a difficult one for me. I'd been editor of the Ghana edition of Drum magazine for over three years, during which I'd been attempting to straddle the very frisky political horse that Ghana was riding. The strain had been making me ride close to the very edge of the saddle. 

This horse was itself confused. On the one hand, it wanted to achieve socialism, with all the totalitarian features that such a system incorporates. On the other hand, Ghanaian society was brought up, traditionally, to value freedom of thought: in our chiefs' courts, for instance, we could say what we wanted to say and not be punished. 

We could destool chiefs who did not make the mark as far as satisfying popular expectations were concerned. Socialist economic objectives were understood by us and mainly accepted. But what political and social sacrifices needed to be made to bring them about? In other words, should we accept the notion that the end justified the means? 

Nowhere else was the debate on these issues as fiercely conducted as the Ghana Press Club. This was a cosmopolitan association in which the idea that someone else's thoughts were more important than another's was repugnant. But an informal pecking order had gradually been growing, in which the journalists who worked for the media that were controlled by the state--the Ghanaian Times (daily), the Evening News (daily) and The Spark (weekly) assumed that they should be our "leaders of thought". 

As the Entertainment Secretary of the Press Club, I was on the executive committee of the Association, and so had many close encounters with the "Party Press Boys", as we called them. I did not respect them too much because I realised they were not well read. As I was quite outspoken--a character trait that I had absorbed from my father, who was a chief's spokesman--and which still dogs me--some of them took my attitude for arrogance! 

As I was working for a magazine owned by a foreigner (and no less a foreigner than a South African millionaire!) this perception of my character made me very vulnerable indeed. Every disagreement I had with them could always be misconstrued as coming from the warped mind of an "imperialist agent" or worse, a person who was taking the shilling of an "apartheid collaborator". 

I wasn't worried about any of this, though, for I knew of the sterling work Drum magazine had done in South Africa in promoting the welfare of the African populace, and as for imperialism, I had spent three years at the Ghana Broadcasting System denouncing it morning, noon and night. In other words, I was so sure of myself that superficial people would undoubtedly conclude that I was "cocky". 

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 

But I had one fall-back position that was indisputable--the articles I produced in my magazine. Only an ass could, after reading my output, conclude that I was anything but a free thinker who called everything as I saw it. 

I have drawn up this background for you so that you can adequately judge the import of one of the most important debates that ever took place at the Ghana Press Club--and in socialist Ghana for that matter--in those days. 

At the time, one of my best friends was an African-American novelist called Julian Mayfield. He had published a readable novel called The Hit in the US, and since I was then serialising it in Drum, the story which was to become my novel, The Gab Boys (Andre Deutsch, London and Fontana London) we quickly became a mutual admiration society. 

Now, without telling me, Julian was working as a speechwriter for President Kwame Nkrumah in his Flagstaff House office. His cover was that he was editing a magazine for the president's office called The African Review. 

I drank many a Club beer with him, whilst he railed against the "dimness" of the President's Press Secretary, Yaw Eduful, under whom Julian worked.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 

I liked Eduful, who had risen to his position from the sturdy and murky corridors of the Ghana Information Services Department. I tried to explain to Julian Mayfield the constraints of the Ghana civil service, which Eduful had taken with him to the President's Office. I think I saved Julian from resigning in frustration, for he was full of American "go-gettit-now!", whereas Eduful would take maybe three weeks to say, "Buy a green pencil, not a red one!" 

There was also a great deal of territorial infighting. Eduful worked directly under another civil servant of the old school, Michael Dei-Anang (a very good poet) with whom he shared a distaste for the influence they observed was exercised over President Kwame Nkrumah by a host of foreigners, with particular reference to Shirley Du Bois, wife of the African-American leader, Dr W. E. B. Du Bois, who had come to Ghana in 1962 to edit the Encyclopaedia Africana that Dr Nkrumah was trying to compile and publish. 

Well, create an atmosphere like that and then fade in Malcolm X and what do you get? Sheer dynamite, connected to a slow-burning but very short fuse--that's what! 

It was Julian Mayfield who confided in me that Malcolm X had come--secretly--to Ghana. Now, at that time, Malcolm X was one of the most high-profile Americans in the world. He was a "Black Muslim" leader, which was unusual. But he was gifted with a speaking manner that made him one of the most persuasive orators in the world--as far as black people were concerned. 

He had had a picturesque past--as a pimp, drug dealer and petty thief. But he had been converted to accept Islam, whilst he was serving time in prison. This had led him to teach himself about the world. Especially, about relations between blacks and whites in the world. 

He had discovered that whenever one came across the words, black or dark in the dictionaries written by white writers, it connoted something evil or degrading: as in blackmail (although this was a crime which was particularly suited to the white way of life, in the sense that economic power rested with whites and blackmail always involves money!); black day (although this involves darkness and there isn't much darkness to be found in the daytime in the places where black people originated from and mostly live!); and Dark Continent (implying primitive Africa, although the pyramids built in Africa, for instance, are works of great wonder that have lasted for thousands of years and are destined to survive for thousands more, if the world is not destroyed, in the mean time, by the most devastating weapon of a "civilised" world--a thermonuclear war!) 

Malcolm X brought this autodidactic erudition into the discourse on American racism. He would look at the way racists behaved towards African-Americans and ask rhetorically, "Is this the thanks we get for cultivating their cotton and tobacco fields and making enough money [for them] to use on Wall Street to buy the rest of the world three times over?" 

Black audiences swallowed the words of Malcolm X as if they were oxygen-starved fish come to the water's surface to breathe dear life into their gills. And the FBI was frightened and targeted him. So did the CIA. 

That was why he travelled abroad in secret. And he had come to Ghana. Secretly. 

Now, at this time, Ghana was aptly designated as "the Mecca" of the African Freedom Struggle. You went to Star Hotel of an afternoon for a drink, and a whole delegation of South African exiles would file past you on their way to the dining room. You went to the Lido Night Club to dance at night, and you would find a huge man called Joshua Nkomo from "Southern Rhodesia" (now Zimbabwe) chatting merrily to some of the most beautiful young ladies on the continent. 

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 

You went to the Ambassador Hotel for a club sandwich and you would hear Congolese music emanating from the huge wireless set sitting by the table of political dissidents from Gabon, or Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) or Dahomey (Benin) or Niger or Cote d'Ivoire or Senegal. Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana welcomed them all. 

Malcolm X had heard of this, and he came to Accra to begin his search for Africans with whom he could connect. But he needed to do this through African-Americans who had already begun the journey of connection. None was better placed than my friend Julian Mayfield. Julian immediately set up a committee, that included a young lady called Maya Make, who had arrived in Ghana about a year earlier, from Cairo where she had been working on a newspaper called The Arab Observer. At that time, she was carrying the name of a South African exile called Vesuvius Make, to whom she had been married and from whom she had separated. 

Now, Maya Make was a woman with a striking physical presence. She was a tad over six feet tall, wore her hair like an African woman (that is either in hand-twisted braids or a mini-Afro) and was always dressed in African mammy-cloth--either as a dress or in Ghanaian "top-and-bottom" fashion. She wore beads, and bangles on her wrists. 

But it wasn't all as "loud" as it may sound. She took care to study her African sisters, and by studying them, she avoided becoming a cliche to be sniggered at--like some of the more superficial African-American men who thought that all they needed to become Africans was to go in for a colourful dashiki turned out to be. 

But it was Maya's face that talked to her. It was a big face, with an African nose that seemed not to have noticed that many of the African women who were raped by white racists sported distinctly "un-African" noses, while her upper teeth--when she smiled--exposed a nice little gap known and appreciated by African men, especially in Ghana, where the Akans call the gap by a special name, "ejereh". 

But the striking presence of Maya Make did not end there. Her voice was something else. It was low and deep and musical in a way that only Americans born and bred in the South are blessed by. But unlike the twangy nasal tone which makes some Americans unintelligible to Africans, Maya's voice was as clear as daylight: she had trained as an actress and worked as a singer, and had learnt from Ella Fitzgerald that one had to cultivate a distinctive voice if one wanted one's words to be remembered. 

Julian Mayfield wanted Malcolm X to address the Ghana Press Club, and he brought Maya along to meet me and make the case. Now, I was extremely interested in the Black Struggle in the US and had been publishing graphic accounts of the way the racist police were using police dogs and water-hoses to suppress the demonstrations and sit-ins with which African-Americans were protesting against the racial segregation laws under which they lived. 

Drum's in-depth coverage--which went beyond the cryptic stories published in the Ghanaian press from news agencies like Reuters--had impressed the African-American community, and when Julian Mayfield introduced me to Maya, she drew herself up, looked me up and down quizzically and sang out my name: "Ka-meron Diuodiu!" 

Anyway, the Malcolm X committee had a real problem on their hands. They wanted Malcolm to tell the Ghanaian public how things were back at home. But the Western media was full of reports about the violent methods he espoused, and how his speeches were full of hatred for whites. His pet name for whites was "devils". Yet, at that time, the white socialist countries in Europe were rendering economic assistance to Ghana and offering many Ghanaians training in all sorts of fields, including training for the armed forces and the security police. 

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 

What would these "comrades" think if the Ghanaian media were allowed to carry anti-white speeches emanating from a person known to "hate" white "devils"? But even more important would be the reaction of the US government to a welcome for Malcolm X in Ghana. 

Many influential circles in America had already written off Nkrumah as a "communist fellow-traveller" who used non-alignment as a guise under which to propound communist ideology in Ghana. Thus, there had been strong opposition to the late President John F. Kennedy's decision to offer American assistance to help finance the Akosombo Dam, which Nkrumah was building over the Volta River. 

Nkrumah had had a special personal relationship to the [Roman Catholic] US President, John Kennedy--through a mutual friend, the [Roman Catholic] writer, Barbara Ward, also known as Lady Jackson, wife of the chairman of the Preparatory Committee of the Volta River Project, Sir Robert Jackson. Indeed, he acknowledged, on the day the dam at Akosombo became operational, that Kennedy had met so much opposition over the financing of the dam that at one stage, Kennedy was the "only member of his Cabinet" in favour of continuing with US assistance for the Project! With Kennedy dead, the US would need but the slightest "provocation" to withdraw its participation in its financing. 

Julian Mayfield, working inside Flagstaff House, knew about these intricate problems. He, of course, wanted Malcolm X to be given a platform for his message in Ghana. But he also wanted to avoid embarrassing his boss, Dr Nkrumah. So he wanted to use the Ghana Press Club as a "copy-taster" (as it were) for Dr Nkrumah. 

If the Party Press boys approved of Malcolm X's message, then Dr Nkrumah would come under pressure to accommodate Malcolm. But if the Party Press boys gave Malcolm the cold shoulder, then Dr Nkrumah would be free to wash his hands of him. 

Finally, the issue of whether to allow Malcolm X to hold a press conference at the Ghana Press Club eventually reached the executive committee, of which you may recall I was a member. For some reason, non-members of the committee were allowed to take part in the deliberations! (But in those days, one never knew whom one was talking to: one might chide somebody, only to realise much later that he had come from one or other of the security services to convey a message or to act as an agent provocateur to tease out other people's opinions.) 

The case against giving Malcolm X a platform was not lone in coming: he was a violent man who was organising the Black Muslims or "The Nation of Islam"--nominally under the leadership of an ageing mullah, Elijah Muhammad but actually under the intellectual tutelage of Malcolm X himself--to use violent methods to cause a revolution in the USA. 

Their ultimate objective was to use revolutionary methods to force the US government to proclaim part of US territory as a "homeland" for the black people of the US, where they could rule themselves as a separate nation. 

Someone shouted from the floor: "The man is a racist. We don't want any racist ideas." 

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" and could not be seen to be encouraging religious dogmas, especially ultra-religious ones, such as the Black Muslims espoused. Had not Karl Marx described religion as "the opium of the people or masses?" 

Unfortunately, it was not the virtue of the Party Press guys and their supporters from within the Convention People's Party (CPP) to read widely outside the strict confines of political ideology. So I had a weapon with which to diffuse their arguments. 

In the belief that a good newsman should be composed of information from head to toe, I read just about everything I could lay my hands on. Through this innate curiosity, I had 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 on about twenty pages or more! 

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, in terms of civil rights. 

Of course, make no mistake about it: I am no hypocrite and I don't want to convey the impression that I read Playboy just for its articles! No! Rather, 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 photographs of extremely beautiful women, it gave one serious issue to consider. 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, white man's corrupting publication" and granting the interview. 

It was conducted, in fact, by a black writer, Alex Haley of Roots fame, and 

Playboy had been prescient in publishing it because it gave the magazine an entree into male black consciousness. Haley was later to be the ghost-writer of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 

I had been impressed by the sheer eloquence and logical thinking that Malcolm X demonstrated in the interview, and when I saw that the prejudices and misreporting that had been conveyed about Malcolm by the white American media would thwart him rather ironically--from being allowed to give his views directly to the Ghanaian public, I got up and made a persuasive speech to my fellow journalists, stressing the need for us to allow freedom of expression, which we all claimed we treasured, 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? I asked. 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 their say.

I then asked scornfully: "Are we saying that a white man's magazine, Playboy, is more intelligent than us? More tolerant of the views of a black leader than us? Do we want to admit that Playboy has a better sense of news values than we do?" 

This was a blow to the intellectual solar plexus of my colleagues and they dropped their objections. 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 positive reports of his press conference led directly, I imagine, to Shirley Du Bois advising Dr Kwame Nkrumah to receive Malcolm--a meeting which Malcolm wrote very appreciatively about in his Autobiography. 

Equally important, the reports led to Malcolm being invited by a group of students and lecturers at the University of Ghana, Legon, to talk at 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 around! "Don't be surprised," he told the Ghanaian audience, "if some of them speak to you with their white master's voice! The slave master took out their tongues and inserted his own in their mouths! 

"And that's been going on for about three hundred years ... The slave master also deleted their African names and gave them his own. And today, the US government sends them to you and you look at them and they look like you! But they've got their master's brains! You've got to educate them ... So that they can think like you, not about what their master wants but what is good for you and them as Black People." 

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 

He added, "Those same slave masters sent us to Europe as soldiers in World War II, 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 with them in the front end of the bus. We are good enough to die for America, but not good enough to enjoy what America has to offer with them!" 

Malcolm X concluded: "Mind you, I have not come here to condemn America. But if what I say condemns America, then America stands condemned!" 

I recorded the speech and printed it almost verbatim in 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 had been publishing articles about the Black Struggle in the US and that this had met with appreciation from members of the African-American community in Ghana. When news of my stance at the Press Club reached them, my stock with them rose even higher; Maya held my hands and breathed out my name again in that deep singsong voice of hers. 

If people who heard Malcolm X only in public could become his lifelong disciples, just imagine what those who heard him in private did. 

Maya was at his side most of the time and she became a disciple of his. She has recorded her annoyance at the length of time it took Shirley Du Bois to agree to take Malcolm to Nkrumah, and how Malcolm admonished her for her impatience. And lack of understanding of Shirley's difficult position at the time. 

Maya must have fallen for Malcolm, for she began earnestly to work closely with him, to help him form a new organisation that his travels abroad had convinced him to form. He called it the Organisation of African-American Unity (OAAU), taking his cue from the (then) Organisation of African Unity (OAU). 

By then, Malcolm had been criticising the hypocrisy of his old mentor, Elijah Muhammad, for taking advantage of some of the young women in his flock. This had convinced liberals, both white and black, that he was a genuine social reformer and not just a religious bigot. 

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] 

Malcolm's message had also evolved and become more cosmopolitan: a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he prayed with white Muslims, convinced him that some 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 next envisioned that if he could unite the Islamic world behind the African-Americans, and get the Middle Eastern countries that the US government valued so much (because of their oil) to support a move by Black Americans and their African supporters to indict the US at the United Nations, over racism, the US government would be forced to embark on serious measures to end racism. 

Above all, Malcolm X began to tone down his criticism of 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 rifle butts and setting police dogs and water-hoses on them (in places like Little Rock, Arkansas) Dr King was still talking about a peaceful way of achieving equality. 

I am sure Maya had something to do with this change in attitude on the part of Malcolm, for she was a very decent and generous human being, who did not go in much for adversarial politics. 

Malcolm conceded to her and other close associates that he was prepared to unite with Martin Luther King in an act meant to achieve the goals of civil rights that they were both fighting for--King with his nonviolent methods, and Malcolm "by every means necessary". But Malcolm gave a condition for co-operating with Dr King: "If after we have tried your nonviolent methods for some time, we realise that we are not getting anywhere towards 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 on a different turn in subsequent years. One does not need to speculate that it was because of the qualitative change that he was bringing into his struggle, his decision to appeal, henceforth, for support from a worldwide audience, and the greater number of blacks he would inevitably have recruited, that led to his brutal 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 secret relationships with the FBI. 

Maya Angelou's books recall such painful incidents and debates and often give an inside look at what was really happening beneath the surface of the struggle for civil rights in the US. Her works are easily found through a search on Google. 

For not only are they instructive, but they are also delightful to read. As a writer, she was gifted with excellent craftsmanship. She had an easy way of telling stories through, and about, people. If one began a book of hers, it was difficult to put it down. 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, of, course, milked her extraordinary life story to the full--but who can blame her? She asked sagely: "If you don't sing your own song, who will sing it for you?" 

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. It was nice to see that she, like Malcolm X (who was also kind enough to mention my name in his Autobiography) was so meticulous that she was able to spell 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 really been anyone whose works have been selling as greatly as Ernest Hemingway since Hemingway died!" they had agreed. They both fancied themselves replacing Hemingway--by writing very good bestsellers. 

Well, in terms of sales volume and breadth of reader appeal, I postulate that Maya Angelou may well have equalled Hemingway, or even surpassed him. Why? The answer is that women did not form too large a part of the readership of the macho man Hemingway, whereas almost as many women have read Maya Angelou as women! 

Dear Julian Mayfield--were he alive, he would laugh uproariously at the irony contained in that notion I have just enunciated. To imagine that Maya Angelou, who was essentially considered to be a student by both himself and James Baldwin, would have grown to fill Hemingway's shoes! 

Or even surpassed Hemingway--because, of course, Maya Angelou is read not as the author of egoistic fiction--which Hemingway's work often is--but as the chronicler of hard reality in the South of the Great United States of America, in the 20th century. No-one has ever done it like Maya did. And in a country whose appetite for real-life stories is second to none, that is no small thing. 

Rest In Peace, Dear 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 back home!" Well, you won't need to do that, where you've now gone. Your pen has told them already what you are, and they will all embrace you and love you. And say, "Welcome Big Sistah!" to you, "Welcome Big Sistah!"


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