All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
[Malcolm X – Part 2]
When Malcolm met Nana Nketsia the two men acted magnetized. I had not heard Nana speak so quietly nor seen Malcolm listen so deeply. Each man grew in the other’s presence and when I took Malcolm to his hotel, he said:
— Now I have met African royalty. A chiefs True, true. He knows his people and he loves them, and they love him.
Malcolm’s face wore a mask of wistfulness so telling I had to look away.
Lesley arranged for him to speak at Legon University, and that night the auditorium was filled with students, lecturers and some townsfolk. Since Malcolm was the guest of the young Marxist League, the organization’s representative spoke first. The young man quoted Karl Marx with such force, he seemed to have taken on his subject’s persona. The crowd became impatient, but Malcolm sat on the stage calmly listening to the speaker.
Guy had given me the honor of agreeing to sit near me. He and his Ghanaian friends were equally anxious for the Marxist to leave the podium so that Malcolm could speak, and they began to murmur. I coughed to get Guy’s attention, but he looked at me and frowned. His scowl said “Don’t reprimand me in public. Don’t embarrass me.” He was right. He was nineteen and each of us had labored with some success to create new ways to talk to each other. Nature was guiding his hands to loosen the maternal bonds, and although I felt if I was freed from the stay of motherhood, I might fly away like a feather in the wind, with trepidation, I too tried to let my child become his own man.
Finally, Lesley Lacy introduced Malcolm and immediately his oratorical skill captured the audience. The years in prison, in mosques, on street corners, at college lecterns and before television cameras had produced a charismatic speaker who could play an audience as great musicians play instruments. He spoke moderately loud, then thundered, whispered, then roared. He used the imagery of Black American Baptist preachers and the logic of university intellectuals. He spoke of America, White and Black Americans, racism, hate and the awful need to be treated as humans.
When he finished the audience rose. A group of students which included Guy, began to chant the football cheer, “Asante Kotoko.”
Malcolm quieted the crowd and asked for questions.
He met each question squarely. The audience applauded. A faculty member asked why Malcolm incited people to violence. Why did he preach violence? He answered:
— I am responding to violence. If your house is on fire and I come to warn you, why should you accuse me of setting the fire? You should thank me for my concern. Maybe you can put out the fire before it is too late.
The Africans relished Malcolm’s use of proverbs. His answers were as considered and detailed as his address had been. Then a student stood:
— Mr. Malcolm X, what I don’t understand is why you call yourself Black. You look more like a White man than a Negro.
The young man sat down and a few embarrassed titters and some disapproving groans could be heard on the dark floor.
At first Malcolm laughed. He opened his mouth wide and laughed loud and long.
— Little brother, I’ve been waiting for that question since I landed in Africa, and while many people thought it, you’re the first person who had the nerve to ask. I commend your courage. Well, let’s look at it. At home, that is, in that place where I was born, I’ve been called by Whites a yellow nigger, a light-skinned nigger, a red uppity nigger, a fair-skinned seditious nigger, but never until now have I been called a White man. I mean, Whites who should know their own have never made the mistake of overlooking my African blood. It is a strange sensation to have to explain, in Africa, the effects of slavery, and maybe the young man who asked the question is the only person who really needs an explanation, but if there are others, I suggest that you all listen carefully.
As slaves, we were the property of slave masters. Our men were worked to death, our women were raped, then worked to death, and many of our children were born looking like me. The slave master fathers denied their children, but fortunately we retained enough Africanisms to believe that the mother’s child was our child, no matter who or what the father had been.
Before I became a Muslim, when I was hustling on the streets of America, because of my color, Black people called me mariney, and Detroit Red. Some even cussed me out and called me unprintable names, but nobody tried to give me away to White folks. I was accepted. Now, my point is, if Whites who should know don’t claim me, and Blacks who should know do claim me, I think it’s clear where I belong. I am a Black man. Notice, I don’t say Black American, I don’t consider myself a democrat, a republican, or an American. I am a Black Muslim man of African heritage. Next?
Black Americans led the applause and soon the entire audience was standing, clapping and laughing its approval.
Malcolm’s time was perforated in orderly sections like postage stamps. He went to see Lesley at Legon, visited with Sarah and Bobby Lee in their home, called upon Alphaeus and Dorothy Hunton and still had energy many evenings to fill Julian’s living room with a fluency of strong language and his always unexpected humor.
We congratulated ourselves on our successes, but commiserated over our largest failure. Despite all our efforts we were not able to get Malcolm an audience with Kwame Nkrumah.
Some thought that the President’s reluctance to meet the radical Black leader stemmed from a desire to stay in America’s good graces. That idea was argued down since Nkrumah’s policies tended decidedly toward nonalignment. There were as many Russians in Ghana as Americans, and they seemed to be treated equally.
Julian tried to reach Shirley Graham Du Bois, but she was not available. Mrs. Du Bois could have arranged a meeting in seconds. She and the president were family-close. It was said that Nkrumah called her “little mother,” and that she telephoned him each night at bedtime. Ana Livia, the late Doctor Du Bois’ doctor, telephoned her and even went to the Du Bois home, but Shirley was as elusive as smoke in a high wind. I accused her of being deliberately inaccessible, but after my friends said that my paranoia had gotten out of hand again, I kept my thoughts to myself.
The Nigerian High Commissioner, Alhadji Isa Wali, invited Malcolm to lunch and a few of us tagged along. We sat in the Residency dining room, watching our leader work a subtle charm on the already enchanted diplomat.
It was clear that Malcolm had a number of integrated personae. None was contradictory to the others, but each was different. When he sat with me after a long day of interviews and meetings, he was a big brother advisor, suggesting that it was time for me to come home.
— The country needs you. Our people need you. Alice and Julian and Max Bond and Sylvia, you should all come home. You have seen Africa, bring it home and teach our people about the homeland.
He talked of his family.
— Betty is the sweetest woman in the world, and the girls. Did I show you these pictures?
Each time I would deny that I had seen the photographs and each time he would point out and name his daughters.
In the late evenings, he was like a traveling salesman or a soldier on duty, a family man, sadly away from those he loved most.
But in the larger formal company of Black American expatriates, he told humorous stories about Whites and about himself. He entertained easily and was quick to laugh.
On stages, he spoke fiercely against oppression and for revolution.
— I am neither a fanatic nor a dreamer. I am a Black man who loves justice and loves his people.
And with the Nigerian High Commissioner, who at five feet stood fourteen inches shorter than Malcolm, he was a large attentive son, explaining himself endearingly to his small father.
— We have much work to do at home. Even as you have your work here in Africa. We are lambs in a den of wolves. We will need your help. Only with the help of Africa and Africans can we succeed in freeing ourselves. His voice was soft, his volume low, still he spoke with force.
After lunch we gathered on the veranda so that Alice could take her photographs for history. The ambassador presented Malcolm with a grand boubou, which he quickly put on. The rich robe which had fallen to the floor when worn by High Commissioner Alhadji Isa Wali came just below Malcolm’s knees. Both men laughed at the difference in size, but the ambassador said:
— Some are big, some are small, but we are all one.