One of the greatest civil rights icons of our time, Maya Angelou, recounts the African stage of her path in the fifth volume of her autobiography. It is about her life in Ghana in the beginning of the 1960’s and it is a sincere and touching account. In 1962, Angelou landed in Ghana’s capital, Accra.
Prior to her arrival in the West African country, Angelou had spent two years in Cairo, Egypt after having left South Africa in the arms of apartheid militant and representative of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in Egypt, Vusumuzi Make. Her failed marriage to Make pushed the young 34 year old to change course.
And rather than returning to the United States where she had earned her reputation as a singer, dancer, actress (in Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess and The Blacks by Jean Genêt), and a civil rights advocate, Angelou decided to stay on the continent after being promised a job at the Ministry of Information of Liberia. On her way to Liberia, she stopped in Accra to enroll her son into university. But upon arrival, she fell under the country’s spell and decided to stay put.
As a result, she became “one of the 200 African-Americans that came from Saint Louis, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Dallas, with a desire to accomplish a biblical tale”: That is, a return to Africa under the rule of the popular and charismatic Kwame Nkrumah. Educated in the US, Nkrumah opened the doors of the country to African-Americans, many of whom he had extended a personal invitation.
In the two years she spent in Ghana, she learned Fanti
It was the case of William Edward Burghart (WEB) Du Bois, one of the founding fathers of Pan Africanism. Nkrumah granted DuBois Ghanaian nationality and entrusted him with the creation of an African encyclopedia.
The small African American community that Angelou met in Ghana was from diverse backgrounds. There were families of teachers and farmers living in the countryside, “in the hopes of immersing themselves in their ancestral backdrop.” At the time there were also people from the Peace Corps and USAid. According to Angelou, these people inspired mistrust amongst Ghanaians. And African Americans avoided them too.
She says they often imitated the mannerisms of the former colonial masters and treated Africans like the Whites had treated them. They also bowed to both Europeans and White Americans with a repulsive subservience, she remembers. There were also some businessmen and a number of passionate and volatile political emigrants, devoted body and soul to Africa and Africans, both home and abroad. It is with the latter that the author identified herself.
But despite their passion, the African Americans suffered a moral blow as a result of the Ghanaians’ indifference towards them. They would have loved to be received in a more solemn manner as they set foot on African ground.
And when that didn’t happen African-Americans concluded that their return to their roots was nothing but a banal act and that their presence in Osagyefo (the Redeemer) Kwame Nkrumah’s country meant nothing to the natives. Angelou admits: “We have tolerated a lot to be ignored.”
But that did not keep her from admiring Ghana, a country run by black people, “in the same way a young girl falls in love, with no worries and without looking to be paid in return.”
In spite of this frustration that ate away at them, African Americans did not go as far as to believe that the population was hostile (towards them). They didn’t equate this “indifference” with the institutionalised segregation that their community suffered in the United States. In Ghana, African Americans were simply free men and women.
The major problem was when they were confronted with communication problems. To speak with Ghanaians, you would have had to know the local languages, which wasn’t the case. Angelou knew it when she wrote: “They’re not mean… never mean, just a little distant for the most part.
“Our inability to speak their language obviously poses a problem. Without a common language, it’s very difficult to communicate.”
In the two years she spent in Ghana, she learned Fanti. Thanks to the members of the local elite that she visited, she was able to get a job as an administrative assistant at the University of Ghana.
The only time things went bad was when Nkrumah escaped an assassination attempt (there were three during his presidency). After accusing all imperialists, the Ghanaian Head of State shifted focus to the United States and decreed that Washington had used its black expatriates in Ghana to kill Osagyefo’s.
Angelou was not angry about the blacklisting but, nevertheless it was still a source of worry for African-Americans in the country.
Apart from the gold mine of information on the Ghanaian bourgeoisie during an era when they were chauffeured by limousines and living in ostentatious houses that looked like castles, The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou also recount Malcolm X’s trip to Ghana in 1964.
Malcolm X was received in extremis by Nkrumah on the intervention of WEB DuBois’s widow.
The rift between Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali who crossed each other in the hallway of an Accra hotel, had not been settled with the latter accusing the former of rupturing ties with his spiritual father, Elijah Muhammed.
“I then knew that my people never quite left Africa.”
Angelou returned to the US in 1964 to work with Malcolm X on a project called the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), only to be interrupted by the assassination of Malcolm X in February 1965.
In leaving Ghana she wrote: (citation translated from French to English)
“Long before, I had been taken from Africa by force. […] The second time leaving will be less painful, for I knew then that my people never quite left Africa.
“We had sung of the continent in our blues, we had sang the cries in our gospels, we danced it in our breakdowns.
“From Philadelphia to Boston and to Birmingham, we changed her colour and modified her rhythms.
“For it is Africa that struts around in our rounded calves, wiggles around in our protruding butts, and crackles in our wide and frank laugh.”
Upon returning to the US, she would continue to fight alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
Encouraged and mentored by her friend, author James Baldwin, she leaped into writing.
Today at age 83, she has given birth to a rich catalogue of works including poetry, novels, essays, films, etc. Her essays and works, most of them award winning, are taught in schools all across the US.
Angelou has traveled the world to share her works and is one of the greatest voices of America.
Book: All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
Author: Maya Angelou
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