All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, p.1Part #5 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
OTHER WORKS BY MAYA ANGELOU
And Still I Rise
Gather Together in My Name
The Heart of a Woman
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I Shall Not Be Moved
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water fore I Diiie
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well
Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?
Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas
This book is dedicated to
Julian and Malcolm and all the fallen ones
who were passionately and earnestly
looking for a home.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
A special thank you to Ruben Medina and Alan Palmer for their brotherly love and laughter through many years. Thanks to Jean and Roger Genoud for their camaraderie during our strange and rich years, to Seymour Lazar for belief in my youthful ambition, and to Shana Alexander for talking to me about the mystery of return. Thanks to Anna Budu-Arthur for being a constant Sister.
The breezes of the West African night were intimate and shy, licking the hair, sweeping through cotton dresses with unseemly intimacy, then disappearing into the utter blackness. Daylight was equally insistent, but much more bold and thoughtless. It dazzled, muddling the sight. It forced through my closed eyelids, bringing me up and out of a borrowed bed and into brand new streets.
After living nearly two years in Cairo, I had brought my son Guy to enter the University of Ghana in Accra. I planned staying for two weeks with a friend of a colleague, settling Guy into his dormitory, then continuing to Liberia to a job with the Department of Information.
Guy was seventeen and quick. I was thirty-three and determined. We were Black Americans in West Africa, where for the first time in our lives the color of our skin was accepted as correct and normal.
Guy had finished high school in Egypt, his Arabic was good and his health excellent. He assured me that he would quickly learn a Ghanaian language, and he certainly could look after himself. I had worked successfully as a journalist in Cairo, and failed sadly at a marriage which I ended with false public dignity and copious secret tears. But with all crying in the past, I was on my way to another adventure. The future was plump with promise.
For two days Guy and I laughed. We looked at the Ghanaian streets and laughed. We listened to the melodious languages and laughed. We looked at each other and laughed out loud.
On the third day, Guy, on a pleasure outing, was injured in an automobile accident. One arm and one leg were fractured and his neck was broken.
July and August of 1962 stretched out like fat men yawning after a sumptuous dinner. They had every right to gloat, for they had eaten me up. Gobbled me down. Consumed my spirit, not in a wild rush, but slowly, with the obscene patience of certain victors. I became a shadow walking in the white hot streets, and a dark spectre in the hospital.
There was no solace in knowing that the doctors and nurses hovering around Guy were African, nor in the company of the Black American expatriates who, hearing of our misfortune, came to share some of the slow hours. Racial loyalties and cultural attachments had become meaningless.
Trying utterly, I could not match Guy’s stoicism. He lay calm, week after week, in a prison of plaster from which only his face and one leg and arm were visible. His assurances that he would heal and be better than new drove me into a faithless silence. Had I been less timid, I would have cursed God. Had I come from a different background, I would have gone further and denied His very existence. Having neither the courage nor the historical precedent, I raged inside myself like a blinded bull in a metal stall.
Admittedly, Guy lived with the knowledge that an unexpected and very hard sneeze could force the fractured vertebrae against his spinal cord, and he would be paralyzed or die immediately, but he had only an infatuation with life. He hadn’t lived long enough to fall in love with this brutally delicious experience. He could lightly waft away to another place, if there really was another place, where his youthful innocence would assure him a crown, wings, a harp, ambrosia, free milk and an absence of nostalgic yearning. (I was raised on the spirituals which ached to “See my old mother in glory” or “Meet with my dear children in heaven,” but even the most fanciful lyricists never dared to suggest that those cavorting souls gave one thought to those of us left to moil in the world.) My wretchedness reminded me that, on the other hand, I would be rudderless.
I had lived with family until my son was born in my sixteenth year. When he was two months old and perched on my left hip, we left my mother’s house and together, save for one year when I was touring, we had been each other’s home and center for seventeen years. He could die if he wanted to and go off to wherever dead folks go, but I, I would be left without a home.
The man who caused the accident stood swaying at the foot of the bed. Drunk again, or, two months later, still drunk. He, the host of the motor trip and the owner of the car, had passed out on the back seat leaving Guy behind the Steering wheel trying to start the stalled engine. A truck had careened off a steep hill and plowed into Richard’s car, and he had walked away unhurt.
Now he dangled loosely in the room, looking shyly at me. “Hello, Sister Maya.” The slurred words made me hate him more. My whole body yearned for his scrawny neck. I turned my face from the scoundrel and looked at my son. The once white plaster that encased his body and curved around his face was yellowing and had begun to crumble.
I spoke softly, as people do to the very old, the very young, and the sick. “Darling, how are you today?”
“Mother, Richard spoke to you.” His already deep voice growled with disapproval.
“Hello, Richard,” I mumbled, hoping he couldn’t hear me.
My greeting penetrated the alcoholic fog, and the man lumbered into an apologetic monologue that tested my control. “I’m sorry, Sister Maya. So sorry. If only it could be me, there on that bed … Oh, if only it could be me …”
I agreed with him.
At last he had done with his regrets, and saying goodbye to Guy, took my hand. Although his touch was repulsive, Guy was watching me, so I placed a silly grin on my face and said, “Good-bye, Richard.” After he left, I began quickly to unload the basket of food I had brought. (The teenage appetite is not thwarted by bruises or even broken bones.)
Guy’s voice stopped me.
“Mother, come so I can see you.” The cast prevented him from turning, so visitors had to stand directly in his vision. I put the basket down and went to stand at the foot of the bed.
His face was clouded with anger.
“Mother, I know I’m your only child, but you must remember, this is my life, not yours.” The thorn from the bush one has planted, nourished and pruned, pricks most deeply and draws more blood. I waited in agony as he continued, eyes scornful and lips curled, “If I can see Richard and understand that he has been more hurt than I, what about you? Didn’t you mean all those sermons about tolerance? All that stuff about understanding? About before you criticize a man, you should walk a mile in his shoes?”
Of course I meant it in theory, in conversation about the underprivileged, misunderstood and oppressed miscreants, but not about a brute who had endangered my son’s life.
I lied and said, “Yes, I meant it.” Guy smiled and said, “I know you did, Mother. You’re just upset now.” His face framed by the cast was beautiful with forgiveness. “Don’t worry anymore. I’m going to get out of here soon, then you can go on to Liberia.”
I made bitterness into a wad and swallowed it.
I puckered and grinned and said, “Y
As always, we found something to laugh about. He fumbled, eating with his unbroken left hand and when he did have the food firmly in his grasp, he pretended not to know how to find his mouth. Crumbs littered his gown. “I’ll figure it out, Mom. I promise you I won’t starve to death.” We played word games, and the visiting hours went by quickly.
Too soon I was back on the bright street with an empty basket in my hands and my head swimming in the lonely air.
I did know some people who would receive me, but reluctantly, because I had nothing to offer company save a long face and a self-pitying heart, and I had no intention of changing either. Black Americans of my generation didn’t look kindly on public mournings except during or immediately after funerals. We were expected by others and by ourselves to lighten the burden by smiling, to deflect possible new assaults by laughter. Hadn’t it worked for us for centuries? Hadn’t it?
On our first night in Ghana, our host (who was only a friend of a friend) invited Black American and South American expatriates to meet us. Julian Mayfield and his beautiful wife Ana Livia, who was a medical doctor, were known to me from New York and the rest were not. But there is a kinship among wanderers, as operative as the bond between bishops or the tie between thieves: We knew each other instantly and exchanged anecdotes, contacts and even addresses within the first hour.
Alice Windom, a wit from St. Louis, and Vicki Garvin, a gentle woman from New York City, were among the Americans laughing and entertaining in the small living room. In the two years which had passed since Guy had been in the company of so many Black Americans, he had grown from a precocious adolescent into an adept young man. He bristled with pleasure, discovering that he could hold his own in the bantering company.
Each émigré praised Ghana and questioned my plans to settle in Liberia. There was no need to tell them that I hungered for security and would have accepted nearly any promised permanence in Africa. They knew, but kept up the teasing. One asked, “You remember that Ray Charles song where he says, ‘When you leave New York, you ain’t going nowhere’?”
“Well, when you leave Ghana, going to Liberia, you ain’t going to Africa, in fact you ain’t going nowhere.”
Although I knew Liberians who were as African as Congo drums, I honored the traditional procedure and allowed the raillery to continue.
Alice advised, “Honey, you’d better stay here, get a job and settle down. It can’t get better than Ghana and it could be a lot worse.” Everyone laughed and agreed.
The fast talk and jokes were packages from home and I was delighted to show the group that I still knew how to act in Black company. I laughed as hard as the teasers and enjoyed the camaraderie.
But Guy’s accident erased all traces of their names, their faces and conviviality. I felt as if I had met no one, knew no one, and had lived my entire life as the bereft mother of a seriously injured child.
Tragedy, no matter how sad, becomes boring to those not caught in its addictive caress. I watched my host, so sympathetic at the outset, become increasingly less interested in me and my distress. After a few weeks in his house, his discomfort even penetrated my self-centeredness. When Julian and Ana Livia Mayfield allowed me to store my books and clothes at their house, I gave my host only perfunctory thanks, and moved into a tiny room at the local YWCA I focused my attention on myself, with occasional concentrations on Guy. If I thought about it I was relieved that no one anticipated my company, yet, I took the idea of rejection as one more ornament on my string of worry beads.
One sunny morning Julian stood waiting for me in the YWCA lobby. His good looks drew attention and giggles from the young women who sat on the vinyl chairs pretending to read.
“I’m taking you to meet someone. Someone you should know.” He looked at me without smiling. He was tall, Black, tough and brusque.
“You need to have someone, a woman, talk to you. Let’s go.” I withdrew from his proprietary air, but lack of energy prevented me from telling him that he wasn’t my brother, he wasn’t even a close friend. For want of resistance, I followed him to his car.
“Somebody needs to tell you that you have to give up this self-pity. You’re letting yourself go. Look at your clothes. Look at your hair. Hell, it’s Guy whose neck was broken. Not yours.”
Anger jumped up in my mouth, but I held back the scorching words and turned to look at him. He was watching the road, but the side of his face visible to me was tense, his eyes were unblinking, and he had pushed his full lips out in a pout.
“Everybody understands … as much as anyone can understand another’s pain … but you’ve … you’ve forgotten to be polite. Hell, girl, everybody feels sorry for you, but nobody owes you a damn thing. You know that. Don’t forget your background. Your mother didn’t raise you in a dog house.”
Blacks concede that hurrawing, jibing, jiving, signifying, disrespecting, cursing, even outright insults might be acceptable under particular conditions, but aspersions cast against one’s family call for immediate attack.
I said, “How do you know my business so well? Was that my daddy visiting your mother all those times he left our home?”
I expected an explosion from Julian. Yet his response shocked me. Laughter burst out of him, loud and raucous. The car wobbled and slowed while he held tenuously to the steering wheel. I caught his laughter, and it made me pull his jacket, and slap my own knee. Miraculously we stayed on the road. We were still laughing when he pulled into a driveway and let the engine die.
“Girl, you’re going to be all right. You haven’t forgotten the essentials. You know about defending yourself. All you have to do now is remember … sometimes you have to defend yourself from yourself.”
When we got out of the car Julian hugged me and we walked together toward The National Theatre of Ghana, a round, white building set in an embrace of green-black trees.
Efua Sutherland could have posed for the original bust of Nefertiti. She was long, lean, Black and lovely, and spoke so softly I had to lean forward to catch her words. She wore an impervious air as obvious as a strong perfume, and an austere white floor-length gown.
She sat motionless as Julian recounted my dreadful tale and ended saying that my only child was, even as we spoke, in the Military Hospital. When Julian stopped talking and looked at her pointedly, I was pleased that Efua’s serene face did not crumble into pity. She was silent and Julian continued. “Maya is a writer. We knew each other at home. She worked for Martin Luther King. She’s pretty much alone here, so I have to be a brother to her, but she needs to talk to a woman, and pretty soon she’ll need a job.” Efua said nothing, but finally turned to me and I had the feeling that all of myself was being absorbed. The moment was long.
“Maya,” she stood and walked to me. “Sister Maya, we will see about a job, but now you have need of a Sister friend.” I had not cried since the accident. I had helped to lift Guy’s inert body onto the x-ray table at the first hospital, had assisted in carrying his stretcher to an ambulance for transfer to another hospital. I had slept, awakened, walked, and lived in a thick atmosphere, which only allowed shallow breathing and routine motor behavior.
Efua put her hand on my cheek and repeated, “Sister, you have need of a Sister friend because you need to weep, and you need someone to watch you while you weep.” Her gestures and voice were mesmerizing. I began to cry. She stroked my face for a minute then returned to her chair. She began speaking to Julian about other matters. I continued crying and was embarrassed when I couldn’t stop the tears. When I was a child, my grandmother would observe me weeping and say, “Be careful, Sister. The more you cry, the less you’ll pee, and peeing is more important.” But the faucet, once opened, had to drain itself. I had no power over its flow.
Efua sent Julian away with assurances that she would return me to the hospital. I looked at her, but she had settled into herself sweetly, and I was freed to cry out all the bitterne
When I had finished, she stood again, offering me a handkerchief. “Now, Sister, you must eat. Eat and drink. Replenish yourself.” She called her chauffeur, and we were taken to her home.
She was a poet, playwright, teacher, and the head of Ghana’s National Theatre. We talked in the car of Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Alexander Pope and Sheridan. We agreed that art was the flower of life and despite the years of ill-treatment Black artists were among its most glorious blossoms.
She knew the president and called him familiarly “Kwame.”
She said, “Kwame has said that Ghana must use its own legends to heal itself. I have written the old tales in new ways to teach the children that their history is rich and noble.”
Her house, white as chalk and stark, had rounded walls which enclosed a green lawn. Her three children came laughing to greet me, and her servant brought me food. Efua spoke in Fanti to the maid, and a mixture of Fanti and English to the children.
“This is your Auntie Maya. She shall be coming frequently. Her son is ill, but you shall meet him, for he will soon be released from the hospital.”
Esi Rieter, the oldest, a girl of ten, Ralph, seven, and the five-year-old, Amowi, immediately wanted to know how old my son was, what was his illness, did I have other children, what did I do. Efua sent them away assuring them that time would answer all questions.
I ate as I had cried, generously. After the meal, Efua walked me to the car.
“Sister, you are not alone. I, myself, will be at the hospital tomorrow. Your son is now my son. He has two mothers in this place.” She put her hand on my face again. “Sister, exercise patience. Try.”
When the driver stopped at the hospital, I felt cool and refreshed as if I had just gone swimming in Bethesda’s pool, and many of my cares had been washed away in its healing water.
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes