All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
[Malcolm X – Part 3]
The Chinese Residency was festive with lights and music on Malcolm’s last night in Ghana and our jollity matched the atmosphere. Vicki was being courted by the Chinese delegation. They offered her a trip to China and an opportunity to stay there and teach. Alice had applied for a job with the E.C.A., based in Addis Ababa, and her chances looked good.
We wore our prettiest dresses and best smiles and when we entered the large salon our hosts greeted us as if they had hardly been able to await our arrival. (After a few minutes I noticed that they greeted each new guest as generously.) Julian and Ana Livia were already there with Malcolm mingling in the crowded room. Drinks were brought on large trays and a pretty variety of foods waited on buffets.
The Cuban ambassador and his glamorous wife were talking earnestly with Malcolm when Shirley Du Bois entered. She was a medium-sized, light brown-skinned woman with large eyes, a long attractive face and the confidence of Mount Kilimanjaro. After being welcomed by those in her path, she walked immediately to Malcolm and, taking him by the arm, guided him to a corner where they sat.
The guests swirled around each other, exchanging conversational partners as if they were participants in a jamboree. After nearly an hour, Shirley and Malcolm emerged from their retreat and rejoined the party.
Shirley said loudly:
— This man is brilliant. I am taking him for my son. He must meet Kwame. They have too much in common not to meet.
On that decisive statement she took her leave. Malcolm spent a few more minutes talking with our hosts, then Julian said since Malcolm was to travel the next morning he would drive him to the Continental Hotel.
I was in a rage when I drove my housemates home.
— Are you ready for Shirley Du Bois? ‘I’m taking him for my son.’ Hell, before she wouldn’t even see him. I can’t stand that.
Alice and Vicki let me rant alone. I didn’t mind that they acted indifferent to Shirley’s belated acceptance of Malcolm, I was enjoying my anger.
We were ready for bed when the telephone rang. Alice answered it, while Vicki and I stood by nervously. No one in Accra telephoned after eleven o’clock, save to announce a crisis.
Alice hung up the phone and turned to us. She was somewhere between laughing and crying.
— Kwame Nkrumah will see Malcolm at nine o’clock in the morning. Julian is taking him to Flagstaff House.
Vicki whooped and hollered, “Success! Success!” She grabbed me, then Alice, then me again. Alice was a little stunned and I was furious.
— Shirley went straight home and called the President and told him he had to see Malcolm. She could have done that a week ago, but no.
Alice agreed, but Vicki said:
— Better late than never. You all ought to be celebrating, I say.
For me sleep was difficult difficult that night. My bed was lumpy with anger and my pillow a rock of intemperate umbrage.
The next morning we met Malcolm after his visit with President Nkrumah. The bright sunshine, the bougainvillaea and the singing birds around the hotel didn’t brighten my countenance. I claimed to be saddened by Malcolm’s pending departure, but in fact my heart was still hardened to Shirley Du Bois. Rather than inquire about the Nkrumah interview, I stood apart pouting, while Alice snapped photos and Julian put Malcolm’s luggage in the car. A convoy of limousines glided up importantly to the hotel’s porte-cochere. Small flags waved from the hoods of luxury cars, which meant that each car carried an ambassador.
Alice said there must be some diplomatic meeting, and began to pose Malcolm and Julian for a picture. As she finished, the Nigerian High Commissioner approached.
— My people, good morning. Brother Malcolm, morning. A few of us have come to accompany you to the airport.
The gesture was so unexpected that even Malcolm was speechless.
The Nigerian diplomat continued:
— The Chinese, Guinea, Yugoslav, Mali, Cuban, Algerian and Egyptian ambassadors are here. Others wanted to come but national matters detained them. We will pull up and onto the road as you will want to ride with your friends. We will follow.
Julian was the first to speak to Malcolm after the High Commissioner left us.
— Man, we ought to pay you for this visit. You’ve given this poor group of Black exiles some status. Forty-five minutes with the president and now a convoy of limousines to see you to the airport. Man! We were living here before, but after your visit we have really arrived.
We were all laughing with pleasure when we heard the familiar sounds of Black American speech. We turned around and saw Muhammad Ali coming out of the hotel with a large retinue of Black men. They were all talking and joking among themselves. One minute after we saw them, they saw Malcolm.
The moment froze, as if caught on a daguerreotype, and the next minutes moved as a slow montage. Muhammad stopped, then turned and spoke to a companion. His friends looked at him. Then they looked back at Malcolm. Malcolm also stopped, but he didn’t speak to us, nor did any of us have the presence of mind to say anything to him. Malcolm had told us that after he severed ties to the Nation of Islam, many of his former friends had become hostile.
Muhammad and his group were the first to turn away. They started walking toward a row of parked cars. Malcolm, with a rush, left us and headed toward the departing men. We followed Malcolm. He shouted:
— Brother Muhammad. Brother Muhammad.
Muhammad and his companions stopped and turned to face Malcolm.
— Brother, I still love you, and you are still the greatest. Malcolm smiled a sad little smile. Muhammad looked hard at Malcolm, and shook his head.
— You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.
His face and voice were also sad. Malcolm had been his supporter and hero. Disappointment and hurt lay on Muhammad’s face like dust. Abruptly, he turned and walked away. His coterie followed. After a few steps they began talking again, loudly.
Malcolm’s shoulders sagged and his face was suddenly gloomy.
— I’ve lost a lot. A lot. Almost too much.
He led us back to my car.
— I want to ride with Maya and Julian. We’ll meet at the airport.
Alice and the other friends rode with Ana Livia and three six-footers tried to be comfortable in my little Fiat. Even when we saw the diplomat’s limousines following us, the heavy mood seemed destined to stay.
Malcolm broke the silence.
— Now, Sister, what do you think of Shirley Du Bois? The question gave me a chance to articulate my anger, and I let loose. I spoke of her lack of faith, her lack of identity with Black “American struggle, her isolation from her people, her pride at sitting in the catbird seat in Ghana. Malcolm let me continue until my tirade wound down.
— Now, Sister, I thought you were smart, but I see you are very childish, dangerously immature.
He had not spoken so harshly before to anyone in Ghana—I was shocked.
— Have you considered that her husband has only been dead a few months? Have you considered that at her age she needs some time to consider that she is walking around wounded, limping for the first time in many years on one leg?
Tears were bathing my face, not for the sad picture Malcolm was drawing of Shirley, but for myself as the object of his displeasure.
Julian, from his uncomfortable seat in the back of the car, put his hand on my shoulder gently:
— Keep your eyes on the road.
— Sister, listen and listen carefully. Picture American racism as a mountain. Now slice that mountain from the top to the bottom and open it like a door. Do you see all the lines, the strata?
I could hardly see the road ahead, but I nodded.
— Those are the strata of American life and we are being attacked on each one. We need people on each level to fight our battle. Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.
His voice had become more explanatory and less accusatory.
— When you hear that the Urban League or the NAACP is giving a formal banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, I know you won’t go, but don’t knock them. They give scholarships to poor Black children. One of those recipients might become a Julian Mayfield, or a Maya Angelou, or a Malcolm X. You understand?
I would have died rather than say I disagreed. I said:
— I will think about that.
— I can’t ask anymore. I admire all of you. Our people can be proud. Julian will tell you about my meeting with Nkrumah. I wanted to ride with you to encourage you to broaden your thinking. You are too good a woman to think small. You know we, I mean in the United States and elsewhere, are in need of hard thinkers. Serious thinkers, who are not timid. We are called upon to defend ourselves all the time. In every arena.
Malcolm had lost his harshness and seemed to be reflecting rather than addressing either me or Julian.
Julian asked him if Muhammad’s actions at the hotel came as a surprise, and Malcolm did not answer directly.
— He is young. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad is his prophet and his father, I understand. Be kind to him for his sake, and mine. He has a place in my heart.
At the airport, the ambassadors and other well-wishers swooped him away. Alice had time to arrange him for one last photo and we all shook his hand and hugged him.
Julian said in a forbidding tone:
— Man, I don’t like to see you traveling alone. You know there’s a price on your head.
— No one can guard anyone’s life. Not even his own. Only Allah can protect. And He has let me slide so far.
He smiled for us all and then was gone.
The letdown affected our speech. There seemed to be no words to describe what we were feeling. We regarded each other with embarrassment. Malcolm’s presence had elevated us, but with his departure, we were what we had been before: a little group of Black folks, looking for a home.