All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
[Berlin Volksopera plays
Jean Genet’s The Blacks]
The cable from New York City shook the blues away. It read:
“Berlin Volksopera wants original company Blacks, four days, stop. Venice Biennale, three days, stop. Ticket paid, plus salary. Can you come?”
It was signed: Sidney Bernstein. Three years earlier, I had been a member of a cast which successfully presented Jean Genet’s The Blacks scathing play in New York City. At first, I gave little thought to either the play or the other actors. I was ecstatic with the thought of separating myself from Guy and his brand new grown-up ways.
I rushed to talk to Alice, who was brimming with her own excitement. She had accepted the job in Ethiopia and had decided to stop in Egypt on her way to Addis Ababa. A conference of nonaligned countries would be meeting in Cairo. By adding a little money to my pre-paid ticket I could meet her there after I left Venice. The prospect of seeing Joe and Bahnti Williamson again was exhilarating. The Liberian couple had been brother and sister to me during my stay in Egypt. David Du Bois, the son of Shirley Graham and stepson of Dr. Du Bois, also lived in Cairo and we had been very close friends. A visit to Cairo sounded like the real answer to the malaise which had descended around me. When I learned that Julian and Ana Livia were also going to attend the Cairo conference, it was clear that I would accept Bernstein’s offer and rearrange my ticket to stop in Egypt on my return to Ghana.
I took delight from the flicker of worry which crossed Guy’s face. I had told him that I was leaving for Germany and Italy and Egypt. He recovered too soon to please me.
— Have a wonderful time, Mom. A wonderful time.
Since the Ghanaian pound could not be exchanged on the international market, I swapped my cash with a friend for his Nigerian pounds and packed my new flamboyant African clothes and my gifts of gold jewelry. I was going to meet a group of sophisticated New York actors, some of whom were my friends, and I meant to strut.
I became nervous only when I thought of the years since I had been on the stage. (Playing Mother Courage in Ghana’s National Theatre didn’t really count.) The other actors, all brilliant and ferociously ambitious, had moved around New York City’s theatres, competing with professionals and growing with each role. Their names and work had become known and lauded. I decided to spend two days in Frankfurt, boning up on the play, or those actors would run me off the stage.
The trip on Lufthansa was a test in discomfort. The flight stewards spoke excellent English and were solicitous without being intrusive, but I kept my eyes on the script in my lap, and let my mind wander from the German accents to John Hersey’s book The Wall which had gripped me with horror in my youth. I listened to the speech of the passengers returning to their fatherland and remembered the black and white photographs of emaciated human beings rescued from Auschwitz. It was distressing. In Ghana I worked hard at forgiving those African chiefs who collaborated in the slave trade centuries before, but couldn’t find it in my heart to exonerate the stewardesses who were toddlers at the time of the Holocaust. Prejudice is a burden which confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.
I rehearsed in a small pension in Frankfurt until the lines came automatically to my mind and my tongue. I had learned years before that if I was to act in a play it was wise to memorize every part, even the scenes in which I did not appear. The resulting confidence would spill over into my own role.
Berlin, with its cold temperature, its high-rises, wide, clean avenues and White, White people was exactly what I wanted to see and where I needed to be. I began to relax even as I was being driven from the airport to the Hilton Hotel. When I arrived at my destination I found wide, carpeted corridors, a large, well-furnished bedroom and a bathroom white as a Protestant heaven.
I thought of some Africans I had met who so loved the glories of Europe, they were too immobilized to construct a splendid African future.
This was easy to understand. Europe had ruled long, had brought to Africa a language, a religion, modern ideas of medicine, and its own pervading self-love. How could one suggest in one’s own secret heart that Whites were not gods, descending from heaven, and like gods, bringing bounty on one hand and brutality on the other? That was the way of the gods.
After a bath, I dressed in my most glorious pale lavender silk Grand Boubou, and went down to meet the cast.
Raymond St. Jacques was still so handsome he looked as if he had been sculpted, then cast in copper. Cecily Tyson was smaller than I remembered and much more glamorous. We embraced and laughed at finding ourselves, of all places, in Germany. Godfrey Cambridge had been unable to come to Berlin because he was in a Broadway show, but Lex Monson and Jay Flash Riley pulled me off the floor with their embraces, and the young Lou Gossett, one half legs and the other smiles, bounced up and down to see me. James Earl Jones and I exchanged our customary cool salutes. Years before in New York City we had worked successfully creating a distance which time had not narrowed.
— Lady! Ah, my Lady!
A sonorous voice completed the welcome I had been seeking. Roscoe Lee Browne entered the rehearsal room and I nearly shouted. He had lost none of his princely air nor elegant good looks. He laughed outright when he saw me, and he spoke to me as he spoke to all women; as if we were Fairie Queens.
We embraced and walked away from the cast and began to tell each other of our current lives. We went to a bar and ordered drinks. Roscoe had heard rumors of my recent divorce, and was genuinely sorry to find that they were founded on fact. He asked about my acceptance in Ghana, adding that he had known President Nkrumah when they had both studied at Lincoln University.
I had prepared a tale for the cast, which had Africans and Black Americans lovingly striding arm in arm up a golden staircase to an all sepia paradise inhabited with black-robed Black saints strumming on ebony harps. I had no need to lie to Roscoe, who would have seen through the fiction anyway.
— We have it good, very good, or bad. Heartbreakingly bad.
Roscoe made his face long.
— Africans find it hard to forgive us slavery, don’t they?
He took my hand and said:
— I thought you would have known that. My dear, they can’t forgive us, and even more terrible, they can’t forgive themselves. They’re like the young here in this tragic country. They will never forgive their parents for what they did to the Jews, and they can’t forgive the Jews for surviving and being a living testament to human bestiality.
He patted my hand.
— Now, dear lady, tell me the good side—but first let me hear the story you’re going to tell everyone else.
He laughed when I said I’d spare him the part about all of the Black Americans climbing aboard a chariot and humming our way to heaven.
— Not unless they cast me as De Lawd.
It was wonderful to laugh again, and particularly sweet to laugh Black American rueful laughter in Germany.
The Blacks translated into German became Die Negers. Posters were on bold display throughout Berlin which made the cast snicker behind Black hands. Lex said:
— It’s a good thing they’re speaking German. The first American cracker that comes up to me and says ‘I saw you in de Niggers’ is going to get a nigger beating that’ll make him do a million novenas.
That was particularly funny coming from Monson who played the Catholic priest in the play, coached the actors in church liturgy and whose youth as a devoted acolyte still influenced his adult mannerisms.
Louis Gossett, Jr.
Raymond St. Jacques, 1930-1990
James Earl Jones
Helen Martin, who had the role of the Black Queen and whose sharp tongue was an instrument to be avoided, said:
— I hope these Germans don’t think they’re getting away with something. We know who they are and what they’re saying. I hope I don’t have to read them the real Riot Act before it’s finished.
I listened and participated in the sardonic responses and realized again the difference between the Black American and the African. Over centuries of oppression we had developed a doctrine of resistance which included false docility and sarcasm. We also had a most un-African trait: we were nearly always ready and willing to fight. Too frequently we fought among ourselves, rendering our neighborhoods dangerous to traverse. But Whites knew that our bellicosity could disperse into other places, on jobs, in elevators, on buses, and in social gatherings.
Single White men seldom physically threatened single Black men, saying “You know they will cut you.”
An ancient joke among Blacks told of a bigot who was chided by his friends for calling all Blacks “niggers.”
— But that’s what they are, he announced.
— What do you call the minister of the venerable White Rock Baptist Church?
The bigot answered:
— A nigger.
— And the president of the Black university?
— A nigger.
— And the award-winning scientist?
— A nigger, was the reply.
— And that Black man standing over there watching us with a knife in his hand?
— Oh, I call him, ‘Sir.’
Black American insouciance was the one missing element in West Africa. Courtesy and form, traditional dignity, respectful dismissal and history were the apparent ropes holding their society close and nearly impenetrable. But my people had been unable to guard against intrusions of any sort, so we had developed audacious defenses which lay just under the skin. At any moment they might seep through the pores and show themselves without regard to propriety, manners or even physical safety. I had missed those thrilling attitudes, without being aware of their absence.”