All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
[Malcolm X + Leaving Ghana]
Malcolm was a prompt and exciting correspondent, using the mails to inform, instruct, and encourage us. His letters were weighty with news and rich in details of his daily life. The United States was on the brink of making great changes, and the time was ripe for the Organization of Afro-American Unity. His family was wonderful and it just might be increasing. Death threats were proliferating in his post box and he changed his telephone number frequently to protect his wife from vulgar and frightening callers.
Some of his letters were plain directives:
A young painter named Tom Feelings is coming to Ghana. Do everything you can for him. I am counting on you.
The U.S. State Department is sending James Farmer to Ghana. The Ambassador will pick out special people for him to see and special places he should go. I want you all to collect him and show him around. Treat him as you treated me. I am counting on you.
There were good people working for the OAAU, full of energy and enthusiasm, but none had the organizational skills to set up and run an efficient office. What they needed was an experienced coordinator.
He didn’t mention that I had worked as Northern Coordinator for Martin Luther King’s SCLC. By omitting the reminder, he forced me to speculate upon my possible value to the organization. I went to Julian for advice. He said:
— I suspect we’ll all be home soon. Africa was here when we arrived and it’s not going anywhere. You can always come back.
Alice’s letter from Ethiopia pushed me closer to my decision. She wrote that Malcolm came through Addis, looking good but harried and still traveling without a companion.
— If he gets that OAAU in shape, he’d be sure to have people around him. Like you and Julian, I’m worried for his safety.
My Ghanaian friends said they would be sorry to see me go, but they understood that my people’s struggle came first.
I thought long and carefully before I came to a final decision.
My son convinced me, and had nearly succeeded in convincing himself, that he was a grown man. He was either doing brilliant work at the university or, when he was distracted, none at all. He was a character, in a drama of his own composition, and was living the plot as it unfolded. Even if he forgot his lines, his mannishness wouldn’t allow him to accept prompting.
When I told him I was thinking of returning to the United States, he had smiled broadly.
— Yes, Mom. It is time for you to go back home.
His only frown came when I said I would pay up his tuition and leave him a solid bank account.
— I’m really sorry I have to take your money, Mother, but someday … someday.
Visions of future affluence danced in his eyes. The little boy and even the rambunctious teenager had strutted upon the stage and exited. This new leading man did not need a mother as supporting actress in his scene. He welcomed having the stage to himself at last.
It seemed that I had gotten all Africa had to give me. I had met people and made friends. Efua, Kwesi Brew, T. D. Bafoo and Nana had woven themselves as important strands into the fabric of my life. I had gotten to know and love the children of Africa, from Baby Joe to the clever Kojo, the bouncing Abena, the grave Ralph and the ladylike Esi Rieter. They had given me their affection and instructed me on the positive power of literally knowing one’s place.
Sheikhali had provided African romance, and Comfort’s life and her death had proved the reality of African illusion. Alice and Vicki and Julian and Ana Livia would return to the United States someday and we would stir up our cauldron of old love and old arguments, and not one whit of steam would have been lost during our separation. I had seen the African moon grow red as fire over the black hills at Aburi and listened to African priests implore God in rhythm and voices which carried me back to Calvary Baptist Church in San Francisco.
If the heart of Africa still remained allusive, my search for it had brought me closer to understanding myself and other human beings. The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. It impels mighty ambitions and dangerous capers. We amass great fortunes at the cost of our souls, or risk our lives in drug dens from London’s Soho, to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. We shout in Baptist churches, wear yarmulkes and wigs and argue even the tiniest points in the Torah, or worship the sun and refuse to kill cows for the starving. Hoping that by doing these things, home will find us acceptable or failing that, that we will forget our awful yearning for it.
My mind was made up. I would go back to the United States as soon as possible.