The Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage had its second meeting at Abbey's luxury penthouse apartment on Columbus Avenue, Several weeks before, we had agreed on a charter, a policy statement and a name: CAWAH, It sounded exotic We agreed, The newly founded organization included dancers, teachers, singers, writers and musicians, Our intention was to support all black civil rights groups, The charter, as drawn up by Sarah Wright and signed unanimously by the membership, stated that since the entire power of the United States was arrayed in fury against the very existence of the Afro- mericans, we, members of CAWAH, would offer ourselves to raise money for, promote and publicize any gathering sincerely engaged in developing a just society, It further stated that our members, multitalented, would agree, after an assenting vote, to perform dance concerts, song fests, fashion shows and general protest marches.
Abbey's living room filled with strident voices, Should we or should we not insist that every member show her commitment to being black by wearing unstraightened hair. Abbey, Rosa and I already wore the short-cut natural, but it was the other women, with tresses hanging down like horse's manes, who argued that the naturals should be compulsory.
"I've made an appointment for next Friday. I'm having all this shit cut off because I believe that I should let the world know that I'm proud to be black." The woman placed her hands on the back of her neck and lifted years of hair growth.
I said, "I don't agree." I would miss seeing her long black pageboy.
Abbey said, "I don't agree either. Hair is a part of woman's glory. She ought to wear it any way she wants to. You don't get out of one trick bag by jumping into another. I wear my hair like this because I like it and Max likes it. But I'd dye it green if! thought it would look better."
We all laughed and put that discussion aside, addressing ourselves to plans for an immense fashion show based on an African theme and showing African designs. Abbey said, "In Harlem, I'm sick of black folks meeting in white hotels to talk about how rotten white folks are." So Rosa and I were assigned to find a suitable auditorium for the affair.
Rosa and I met on 125th Street and the first thing she said was "Lumumba is dead." She continued in a horror-constricted voice, saying that she had learned of the assassination from Congolese diplomats, but that there would be no announcement until the coming Friday when Adlai Stevenson, the United States delegate to the United Nations, would break the news.
I said nothing. I knew no words which would match the emptiness of the moment. Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure were the Holy African Triumvirate which radical black Americans held dear, and we needed our leaders desperately. We had been abused, and so long abused, that the loss of one hero was a setback of such proportion it could dishearten us and weaken the struggle.
We were walking aimlessly, in a fog, when the sound of people talking, moving, shouting, broke into our stupor. We allowed ourselves to be drawn to the corner where the Nation of Islam was holding a mass meeting.
The street corner wriggled with movement as white policemen nervously guarded the intersection. A rapt crowd had pushed as close as possible to the platform where Malcolm X stood flanked by a cadre of well-dressed solemn men. Television crews on flatbed trucks angled their cameras at the crowded dais.
Malcolm stood at the microphone.
"Every person under the sound of my voice is a soldier. You are either fighting for your freedom or betraying the fight for freedom or enlisted in the army to deny somebody else's freedom."
His voice, deep and textured, reached through the crowd, across the street to the tenement windows where listeners leaned half their bodies out into the spring air.
"The black man has been programmed to die. To die either by his own hand, the hand of his brother or at the hand of a blue- eyed devil trained to do one thing: take the black man's life."
The crowd agreed noisily. Malcolm waited for quiet. "The Honorable Elijah Muhammad offers the only possible out for the black man. Accept Allah as the creator, Muhammad as His Messenger and the White American as the devil. If you don't believe he's a devil, look how he's made your life a hell."
Black people yelled and swayed. Policemen patted their unbuttoned holsters.
Rosa and I nodded at each other. The Muslim tirade was just what we needed to hear. Malcolm thrilled us with his love and understanding of black folks and his loathing of whites and their cruelty.
Unable to get close to the platform, we pushed ourselves into Mr. Micheaux's bookshop and watched and listened in the doorway.
Malcolm roared back, his face a golden-yellow in the sun, his hair rusty-red.
"If you want to live at any cost, say nothing but 'yes, sir' and do nothing except bow and scrape and bend your knees to the devil. But if you want your freedom, you'd better study the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and start respecting your women. Straighten out your home affairs and stop cheating on your wives. You know who you're really cheating?"
Female voices shot up like arrows over the crowd. "Tell these fools, brother Malcolm." "Tell them to stop acting like little boys." "Explain it. Explain it on down." "Break it down."
Malcolm took a breath and leaned toward the microphone. "You are cheating your fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers and-you-are-cheating-Allah."
A man on the platform lifted his hands, showing copper palms, and chanted in Arabic.
After a burst of applause, Malcolm paused and looked solemnly at the crowd. People stopped moving; the air became still. When he spoke again his tone was soft and sweet.
"Some of you think there are good whites, don't you? Some good white folks you've worked for, or worked with or went to school with or even married. Don't you?"
The listeners exchanged a grumble of denial.
Malcolm continued speaking low, nearly whispering. "There are whites who give money to the SCLC, the NAACP and the Urban League. Some even go so far as to march with you in the streets. But let me tell you who they are. Any white American who says he's your friend is either weak"-he waited for the word to have its effect and when he spoke again his voice growled-"or he's an infiltrator. Either he'll be too scared to help you when you need help or he's getting close to you so he can find out your plans and deliver you back in chains to his brothers."
The street corner exploded with sound as anger and recognition collided. When Malcolm finished speaking the crowd yelled their approval of the fire-hot leader. Rosa and I waited in the bookstore until most of the people left the corner.
We walked without speaking to Frank's Restaurant. Again there was no need to talk. Malcolm's words were harsh, but too close to the bitter truth to argue. Our people were alone. As always, alone. We could not expect protection from whites even if they happened to be our relatives. Slave-owning fathers had sold black sons and daughters. White sisters had put their black sisters in slave coffins for a price.
Rosa and I drank at the bar, not looking at each other.
"What can we do?"
"What do you think?" Rosa turned to me sadly as if I had failed her. She had been counting on me to be intelligent. She continued, frowning, "What the shit do you think? We've got to move. We've got to let the Congolese and all the other Africans know that we are with them. Whether we come from New York City or the South or from the West Indies, that black people are a people and we are equally oppressed."
I ordered another drink.
The only possible action that occurred to me was to call the members of CAWAH and throw the idea out for open discussion. Among us we would find something to do. Something large enough to awaken the black American community in New York.
Rosa didn't think much of my idea but she agreed to go along.
About ten women met at my house. Immediately the tone was fractious and suspicious. How did Rosa know Lumumba was dead? There had been no announcement in the newspapers.
Rosa said she had gotten her news from reliable sources.
Some members said that they thought our organization had been formed to support the black American civil rights struggle. Weren't we trying to swallow too much, biting into Africa? Except for Sekou Toure and Tom Mboya, when had the Africans backed us?
One woman, a fashion model, hinted that my husband and Rosa's diplomat boyfriend made us partial to the African cause. Abbey said that was a stupid attitude, and what happens in Africa affects every black American.
One woman said the only thing Africans had really done for us was to sell our ancestors into slavery.
I reminded the conservatives in our group that Martin Luther King had said that he found great inspiration and brotherly support on his recent trip to Africa.
Rosa spoke abruptly. "Some of us are going to do something. We don't know just what. But all the rest of you who aren't interested, why'n the hell don't you get your asses out and stop taking up our time?"
As usual when she got excited, her West Indian accent appeared and the music in her voice contradicted the words she chose.
Abbey got up and stood by the door. A rustle of clothes, the scraping of shoes, and the door slammed and six women were left in the living room.
Abbey brought brandy and we got down to business. After a short, fierce talk our decisions were made. On Friday, we would attend the General Session of the United Nations. We would carry black pieces of cloth, and when Adlai Stevenson started to make his announcement on Lumumba's death, we six women would use bobby pins and clip mourning veils to the front of our hair and then stand together in the great hall. It wasn't much to do but it was dramatic. Abbey thought some men might join us. She knew Max would like to come along. Amece, Rosa's sister, knew two West Indian revolutionaries who would like to be included. If men joined us, we would make elasticized arm bands, and at the proper moment, the men could slip the black bands up their sleeves and stand with the women. That was the idea. No mass movement but still a dramatic statement.
As the meeting was coming to an end, I remembered a piece of advice Vus had given a few young African freedom fighters:
"Never allow yourself to be cut off from the people. Predators use the separation tactic with great success. If you're going to do something radical go to the masses. Let them know who you are. That is your only hope of protection."
I quoted Vus to the women and suggested that we let some folks in Harlem know what we intended to do. Everyone agreed. We would go to Mr. Micheaux; he could pass the word around Harlem faster than an orchestra of conga drums.
The next afternoon we went back to the bookstore, where posters of blacks covered every inch of wall space not taken up by shelves: Marcus Garvey, dressed in military finery, drove forever in an open car on one wall. W. E. B. DuBois gazed haughtily above the heads of book browsers. Malcom X, Martin Luther King and an array of African chiefs stared down in varying degrees of ferocity.
Mr. Micheaux was fast moving, quick talking and small. His skin was the color of a faded manila envelope. We stopped him on one of his spins through the aisles. He listened to our plans impatiently, nodding his head.
"Yeah. The people ought to know. Tell them yourselves. Yeah, you tell them." His short staccato sentences popped out of his mouth like exploding cherry bombs. "Come back this evening. I'll have them here. Not nigger time. On time. Seven-thirty. You tell them."
He turned, neatly avoiding customers In the crowded aisle.
A little after seven o'clock at the corner of Seventh Avenue, we had to push our way through a crowd of people who thronged the sidewalks. We thought the Muslims, or the Universal Improvement Association, were holding a meeting, or Daddy Grace and his flock were drumming up souls for Christ. Of course, it was a warm spring evening and already the small apartments were suffocating. Anything could have brought the people into the streets.
Mr. Micheaux's amplified voice reached us as we neared the bookstore.
"A lot of you say Africa ain't your business, ain't your business. But you are fools. Niggers and fools. And that's what the white man wants you to be. You made a cracker laugh. Ha, ha." His voice barked. "Ha, ha, crackers laugh."
Because of my height, I could see him on a platform in front of the store. He held on to a standing microphone and turned his body from left to right, his jacket flapping and a short-brim brown hat shading his face from view.
"Abbey, these people"-the human crush was denser nearer to the bookstore-"these people are here to hear us."
She grabbed my hand and I took Rosa's arm. We pressed on.
"Some of your sisters are going to be talking to you. Talking to you about Africa. In a few minutes, they're gonna tell you about Lumumba. Patrice Lumumba. About the goddam Belgians. About the United Nations. If you are ignorant niggers, go home. Don't stay. Don't listen. And all you goddam finks in the crowd-run back and tell your white masters what I said. Tell 'em what these black women are going to say. Tell 'em about J. A. Rogers' books, which prove that Africans had kingdoms before white folks knew how to bathe. Don't forget Brother Malcolm. Don't forget Frederick Douglass. Tell 'em. Everybody except ignorant niggers say 'Get off my back, Charlie. Get off my goddam back.' Here they come now." He had seen us. "Come on, Abbey, come on, Myra, you and Rosa. Come on. Get up here and talk. They waiting for you."
Unknown hands helped us up onto the unstable platform. Abbey walked to the microphone, poised and beautiful. Rosa and I stood behind her and I looked out at the crowd. Thousands of black, brown and yellow faces looked back at me. This was more than we bargained for. My knees weakened and my legs wobbled.
"We are members of CAWAH. Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage. We have learned that our brother, Lumumba, has been killed in the Congo."
The crowd moaned.
"Oh my God."
"Who killed him?"
"Tell us who."
Abbey looked around at Rosa and me. Her face showed her nervousness.
Mr. Micheaux shouted. "Tell 'em. They want to know."
Abbey turned back to the microphone. ''I'm not going to say the Belgians."
The crowd screamed. "Who?"
"I won't say the French or the Americans."
It was a large hungry sound.
"I'll say the whites killed a black man. Another black man."
Friday, March 04, 2011
Sort of related to the conversation below about the tormented David Foster Wallace, and the fêted Jonathan Franzen, the "tribal writers" the one wrote to the other of, enviously and disdainfully, the purported appeal of purportedly "universal" themes in literature (such as Madeleines and Memory), the ease with which bourgeois white brevetted intellectuals claim universalism and accuse others of particularism even as they discuss among themselves what the whites should do about and with those tribes, whether they don't exist at all or just at a very low intensity, and how they should be read, what they mean, what part of whiteness and white experience they represent, and Oprah's book club...here's an excerpt from The Heart of a Woman: