All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
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.
— 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.
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 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.
— 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.