THE HEART OF A WOMAN
Black and white activists began to press hard on the nation's conscience. In Monroe, North Carolina, Rob Williams was opposing a force of white hatred, and encouraged black men to arm and protect themselves and their homes and families. Mae Mallory, a friend from the U.N. protest, had joined Rob. Julian Mayfield, the author of The Big Hit and Grand Parade, wrote a stinging article on Williams's position and then traveled South to lend his physical support. Stokely Carmichael and James Foreman founded a new group, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an offshoot of the Southern resistance organizations, and were taking the freedom struggle into hamlets and villages, where white hate was entrenched and black acceptance of inferior status a historic norm. Malcolm X continued to appear on national television. Newspapers were filled with reports of tributes to Martin Luther King and editorials honoring his nonviolent ideology. The white liberal population was growing. White students joined black students in Freedom Rides traveling on public conveyances to Southern towns which were racist strongholds.
Ralph Bunche was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and had received the Nobel Prize for his work as mediator in the Palestine conflict. When his son was denied membership in the all-white Forest Hills Tennis Club, Dr. Bunche made a statement which revealed his insight. The internationally respected representative, who had a complexion light-colored enough to allow him to pass for white, said, "I know now that until the lowliest Negro sharecropper in the South is free, I am not free."
Ossie Davis's play Purlie Victorious opened on Broadway, and his wife Ruby Dee, as the petite Lutie Belle, had white audiences howling at their own ignorance and greed. Paule Marshall's Soul Clap Hands and Sing was published, and readers were treated to well-written stories of black hope, despair and defeat. John Killens's And Then We Heard the Thunder, exposed the irony of black soldiers fighting for a white country in a segregated army. Baldwin's The Fire Next Time was an unrelenting warning that racism was not only homicidal but it was also suicidal. In Little Rock, Daisy Bates had led nine children into a segregated white high school and when the Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, ordered local police to prevent the students' entry, President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to keep the peace.
Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba were performing fund-raising concerts for the freedom struggle. Max and Abbey traveled around the country doing their "Freedom Now Suite."
Guy was totally occupied with school, SANE, Ethical Culture and girls. Vus traveled to and from East Africa, West Africa, London and Algeria, and I sat at home. I had no job and only the spending money Vus had left. My departure from the SCLC had been so hasty, I was embarrassed to go back and offer my services even as a volunteer. I was not a Muslim nor a student, so there was no place for me either in Malcolm X's organization or in SNCC. I withdrew from my friends and even the Harlem Writers Guild.
At last Vus returned from his latest extended trip. As usual, he brought gifts for me and Guy, and stories which had us tense with excitement and open-mouthed with admiration. My present was a blouse and an orange silk sari. He was delicate and assured when he wrapped the cloth around my hips and draped the end over my shoulders. I didn't ask where or how he had learned the technique. I was becoming a good African wife.
We walked into the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the quiet was intimidating. Tuxedoed white men held the elbows of expensively dressed white women, and they made no noise as they glided over the carpeted floor. I held on to Vus's arm and, dressed in my orange sari, stretched my head and neck upward until I added a few more inches to my six-foot frame. Vus had taught me a little Xhosa, and I spoke clearly and loudly in the click language. When we entered the elevator I felt all those white eyes on my back. I was an African in the bastion of white power, and my black King would protect me.
The Sierra Leone ambassador's suite was festive with brown- and black-colored people in African dress and the melodies of Ghanaian High Life music. Vus took me to the ambassador, who was standing with a group of women near the window.
The ambassador saw Vus and beamed. "Ah, Mr. Make. Welcome. Ladies, I would like you to meet our revolutionary brother from South Africa, Vusumzi Make." Vus smiled and bowed, the light catching his cheekbones, and causing his hair to glisten.
He straightened up and spoke, "Your Excellency, I present my wife, Maya Angelou Make."
The ambassador took my hand. "She is beautiful, Make." He also bowed. "Madam Make, we have heard of you in Africa. Mr. Make has done the continent a great service. Welcome."
I shook hands with the ambassador and each of the women and suddenly found the crowd had dispersed. I saw Vus near a table where a uniformed bartender mixed drinks. The ambassador was dancing with a pretty little woman in a very low-cut cocktail dress and I was left at the window. A roving waiter offered a tray of drinks. I chose a glass of wine and looked down on the lights of New York.
Strange languages swirled around me, and the smell of a spice, known among Arkansas blacks as bird pepper, became strong in the room. I stopped the waiter and took a glass of Scotch from his tray. Vus had taken over from the ambassador and now he was dancing with the little sexy woman, holding her too close, gazing too deeply in her eyes. I found the waiter in a group of laughing guests, took another Scotch and went back to the window to drink and think.
I had a fresh haircut and was wearing the prettiest outfit I owned. I could speak French and Spanish very well and could talk intelligently on a number of subjects. I knew national politics intimately and international subjects moderately well. I was married to a leading African freedom fighter and had daubed French perfume on my body, discreetly. Yet, no one talked to me. I had another drink.
The lights on the street had begun to blur, but I could see clearly that Vus was still dancing with the woman. I would have known what to do if the party had been given by Afro-Americans, or even if there had been a few Afro-American guests. Or if the African guests had all been female. But Vus was successfully teaching me that there was a particular and absolute way for a woman to approach an African man. I only knew how a wife addressed an African husband. I didn't know how to start a conversation with a male stranger, but I did know I was certainly getting drunk. If I could eat soon, I could stop the fast- oving effect of alcohol on my brain and body. I headed for the kitchen.
I nearly collided with the ambassador. He backed away and smiled. "Madam Make, I hope you're enjoying yourself."
I made myself smile. "Thank you, Your Excellency," and continued.
A black woman in a housedress was bent over, taking baking tins from the oven. When she straightened and saw me, she made her face and voice flat.
"Can I help you, ma'am?" Her Southern accent was strong.
"I just wanted a bite of something. Anything."
"Ma'am, they will be serving in a few minutes."
"Are you the ambassador's wife?" My question might have sounded stupid, considering the way she was dressed. But I knew that sometimes the chores of party-giving could increase so that guests arrived before the last tasks were done and the hostess had the time to change.
The woman laughed loudly. "Me? God, no. Madam Ambassador? Me?" She laughed, opening her mouth wide, her tongue wiggled. "No, ma'am. I am a Negro. I am the cook." She turned back to the stove, her body shaking with glee. She muttered. "Me?"
I waited until she turned to me again.
"May I give you a hand? I am also a cook." The laughter left her face as she examined me. Her gaze slid from my hair , and gold earrings, to my necklace and dress and hands.
"No, honey. Maybe you can cook, but you ain't no cook."
I pulled out a chair from the dinette table and sat down. She was right about my profession, but we were both black, both American, and women.
I said, "I'm married to an African, who is out there dancing the slow grind with some broad. And nobody's talked to me. So ..."
She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. She said, "Honey, mens, they ain't gone change. You need a little sip." A drink was the last thing I needed, but she reached down alongside the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of gin from her purse. She poured lavishly into a coffee cup. I took it while she sloshed a little gin into her cup and raised it to me.
"Honey, we women got to stick together. I mean." She swallowed the gin, made a face and growled and I followed her example.
"Sit down and take it easy." She turned and stirred a pot of bubbling sauce, still talking to me over her shoulder.
"What you going to do about it! You welcome to sit in here, but sooner or later, you're going to have to go out there and face him. But help yourself to the gin."
The cook was ladling chili into a large Chinese bowl when Vus came through the kitchen door. The steam and the booze unfocused my eyes. When I saw him loom through the mist, I started laughing. He reminded me of Aladdin's Djinn, only bigger.
Maybe the cook's gin bottle was a lamp, and I had certainly been rubbing it.
Vus stood over me, asking what I was laughing about. But each time I inhaled so that I could explain, Vus seem to grow larger, as if he were somehow connected to my breathing, and laughter would contract my chest and I couldn't say a word.
Vus walked out of the room, and the cook came to me.
"That was your husband?" I nodded, still laughing.
"Well, child, you better get to stepping. He's fat. When a fat man gets mad, huh. I don't care if he's African or not. Ain't no fat man in the world wants to be laughed at." She handed me my purse. The sound of her voice had a small sobering effect, but when I tried to tell her why I had been laughing, I began to giggle again.
"You better go out of here, child, before that man comes back. I saw his face and it wasn't funny."
Finally, her advice reached my active brain. I got up, thanked her and walked from the kitchen through the living room door out into the hall. I pressed the elevator button and as the doors opened Vus burst out of the apartment, saw me and came running down the hall, shouting, telling me to wait. We both stepped into the half-filled elevator.
Vus began to talk. I was his wife, the wife of an African leader. I had embarrassed him. Sitting in the kitchen, getting drunk with the cook. When he tried to talk to me, I had laughed in his face. No African lady would bring such disgrace on her husband. I looked at the other people in the elevator, but they averted their white faces. As neither Vus nor I existed in their real world, they simply had to wait until we reached the ground floor and then our sounds and shadows would disappear.
Vus kept up his tirade as the elevator stopped on our descent, picking up people from other floors. When we reached the lobby, the other passengers scattered like snowflakes. I walked, with my head high, toward the front entrance. Vus was following me, talking, ranting, saying what shame I had brought onto his head, to his name, to his family. What a disappointment I was. How disrespectful I was to a son of Africa.
Deciding not to go out into the street, I turned sharply from the revolving doors and headed back to the elevators. Vus's voice, which had been a rumbling monotone, suddenly lifted.
"Where are you going? Not back to the party. I forbid you. You are my wife. We are going home." At the elevator, I made a quick pivot and walked in the direction of the registration desk, Vus following in my wake, still talking.
The desk clerks, dressed as formally as expensive morticians, thrust long mournful faces at me. I walked past them haughtily. Vus grabbed for my arm but only brushed my sleeve. I snatched away from him and lengthened my stride. When I reached the front doors the second time I looked over my shoulder and saw that his face was bathed in sweat. With an oblique turn, I dodged a small group of white men entering the lobby and increased my speed. Vus's breath came harder and his sentences were short explosions. "Stop! Foolish woman! Moron! Idiot!" I might be all those things or none, but he wasn't going to catch me. I began to sprint. I ran around the sofas, making guests draw their legs out of the way. Vus was lumbering less than a foot behind me. A desk clerk's face suddenly appeared at my side, anxious and gulping. We could have been two underwater swimmers in a clear pool. With just a little energy, I quickly outdistanced him. Vus shouted, "Don't touch her. She's my wife." He stressed the possessive.
A conservatively dressed black man stood in my way. I ran straight toward him but at the last second I veered, and he pulled his attache case up, and cradled it in his arms. I heard his sigh of relief after I passed him.
When I reached the bank of elevators again, I looked back. Vus was nearly in arm's reach. The desk clerk followed him, and behind the desk clerk, a uniformed policeman and a grey-suited man, whom I took to be the manager, brought up the rear. The cop's presence gave me added energy. This seemed as a good a time as I was ever likely to get. I would show that if I didn't have to dodge bullets, if it was a fair race, just me and him, I could outrun any New York policeman. I hitched my purse in my armpit and stretched my legs.
Shouts floated around the lobby "Stop her!" and Vus's "Don't touch her" and "Who is she?"
Startled guests stood together under the crystal chandelier, as we wound through the lobby. I screamed back, "All of you can go to hell."
An empty revolving-door section was moving slowly, so I dove into it and pushed quickly. I heard a thud, and when I stepped out onto the pavement, I looked through the side window. I saw that Vus, the clerk and the policeman had hit the door at the same time and tumbled into a heap on the floor. At that moment I turned and saw a woman get out of a taxi. Before she could slam the door, I ran and jumped into the cab.
It wouldn't be wise to go home, so I gave the driver Rosa's address on Riverside Drive.
I sat drinking black coffee and watching Rosa laugh at my description of the race in the Waldorf Astoria lobby. I had sobered. My actions were unforgivable. I had shown all those white folks that black people had no dignity. I had embarrassed my husband, who was risking his life for our people. He had called me an idiot and he was right. Rosa kept laughing, but for me there was nothing funny anymore.
Vus telephoned the next morning and came to collect me.
He brought flowers for Rosa and perfume for me. We kissed; he declared his love. He didn't mention my outrageous display and I said nothing about his vulgar flirtation. We were completely reconciled.
The sheriffs deputies appeared armed and solemn at my apartment one winter afternoon. When they were assured that I was Mrs. Make, one man handed me a piece of paper while the other tacked a notice on the front door. They moved with the precision of practice and were gone before I could sort out my questions. I stood in the hall reading the form and then looked at the notice. We had been evicted for nonpayment of the rent. We had to be out of the apartment in twenty-four hours, or the sheriffs deputies would put our furniture on the street.
Guy was still at school. Vus was at the U.N. I calmly made a pot of coffee and sat down in the kitchen to think. I had never been put out of a house in all my life. My mother would throw one of her famous tantrums if she heard about my eviction. My son was certain to be embarrassed and made more insecure. My friends would pity me and my enemies would shake their heads and smirk.
I read the form again. I was holding the third and last notice, which meant that Vus had collected the other two and said nothing to me. Then the responsibility was his. I had played the cared-for housewife, who made no money. I hadn't asked for the position, but had accepted the role marriage had forced upon me. I convinced myself that I was without blame, and the total responsibility of how and where Guy and I lived lay in Vus's lap.
I could borrow money from the Killenses or my mother or Rosa, but according to the eviction notice it was too late to pay back rent. We had no recourse save to vacate the premises.
I went to the local supermarket and collected cartons. When I returned, the eviction notice seemed to have become enlarged. It covered the door from ceiling to floor. After rereading it, I went inside and began packing. I put all our clothes in suitcases and the steamer trunk I had brought from California. I culled the best pots and skillets from kitchen cupboards and placed them in cardboard boxes. The furniture, the expensive sofa, good beds and chairs had been Vus's selection, so their disposal or arrangement could wait.
There was a frantic sound of the scraping of the key and the jerking open of the door. Guy and Vus arrived together. They crowded each other in the foyer.
Guy spoke first. "Mom, did you see this door? Did you see the ... ?" I sat on the sofa watching them untangle themselves. Vus came into the living room followed by Guy. "Have you spoken to anyone?"
It was a strange question. I didn't know what he meant, so I shook my head. When Guy asked me, not Vus, what we were going to do, I knew that although I had relinquished my responsibility, and although Guy had seemed to accept Vus as head of our family, in a critical moment he turned back to me.
Vus asked Guy to please go to his room. For the first time in months, Guy studied my face. I nodded and he went into his room reluctantly and left his door ajar.
Vus sat down with a heaviness which could not be credited to his bulk alone.
His first statement struck me as being as strange as his first question. "I have a lot of money, so there's nothing to worry about."
In a few hours, we would be on the street. It was enough that we would have no place to sleep, but our address and telephone number would cease to belong to us. In fact, we were soon to lose everything which identified us to our community except our names, and Vusumzi Make sat facing me, saying, "There's nothing to worry about."
The tiny lines around his eyes deepened and he began to pull viciously at the hairs on his chin. He didn't hear me offer to make a drink or a fresh pot of coffee, so I didn't repeat the offer.
After a few minutes he hauled himself out of the chair and picked up his briefcase. He turned at the door and looking in my direction, but without actually looking in my eyes, spoke. "As I say, there is nothing to worry about." He opened the door, walked out, and eased it closed, quietly.
Guy came out of his room, agog with worry.
"Mom, what's going to happen? The thing said twenty-four hours. Where are we going? How did this happen? What did you do?"
The sight of my long tall beautiful boy brought back the memory of an ancient incident.
My then husband, Tosh, Guy, who was seven, and I were riding in our truck one lovely Sunday morning. We had just finished our weekly outing at the San Francisco city dump where Tosh and Guy threw office trash and home garbage onto the acrid evergoing burning heap of refuse. We had been in a high mood on the return home. Guy made puns and Tosh laughed at them. I felt secure. I had a loving husband and my husband had a job. My son, who was healthy and bright, received love and the necessary, to me, amount of chastisement. What more could I, a young uneducated black girl, expect? I was living in my earthly paradise.
We waited at the intersection of Fulton and Gough for the lights to change. Suddenly, a car lurched into the passenger side of the truck. I was thrown forward, my forehead struck the windshield and my teeth crunched against the top of the cab's dashboard. When I regained consciousness, Tosh was blowing his breath in my face and murmuring. I asked about Guy and Tosh said that as the car hit, I grabbed for Guy and folded him in my arms. Now he was standing on the corner unhurt.
I got out of the truck and walked over to my son, who was being consoled by strangers. When I bent down at his side, he took one glance at my battered face and instead of coming into my arms, he began to scream, strike out at me and back away.
Tosh had to come to talk him into the taxi. For days, he moped around the house avoiding my gaze. Each time I turned quickly enough to catch him looking at me, I shivered at the hateful accusation in his eyes.
We had not caused the accident. Tosh had been the driver, and I was the most injured person. But I was the mother, the most powerful person in his world who could make everything better. Why had I made them worse? I could have prevented the accident. I should not have allowed our truck to be at that place at that time. If I hadn't been so neglectful, my face would not have been cut, my teeth would not be broken and he would not have been scared out of his wits.
Now, eight years later, Guy was asking himself why had I, by neglecting my duty, why had I put his pride in jeopardy? Had I thought that being married removed my responsibility to keep the world on its axis and the universe in order?
Guy stood flexing and tightening his fists, as if he were squeezing and releasing, then squeezing the questions again. I remained quiet, relishing a small but savory knot of satisfaction. He had shifted his loyalty to Vus, leaving me only the leftovers of attention. Now, in the crisis, I became the important person again.
When he realized that I was not going to speak, he sat down on the sofa beside me. Suddenly I didn't know what to say. If, when he reentered the room, I had given an explanation or posed a few alternatives, our lives would have continued in the same rhythms indefinitely. But I had waited too long to speak.
I watched my son. When he slid on the sofa, opened his long arms to embrace me and said, "It'll be okay, Mom. We'll live through this one, too," I began to cry. My teenager was growing up.
Vus returned after nightfall. He had arranged for the sale of our furniture, and a mover would arrive the next morning to take our personal belongings to a hotel where he had rented and paid for a furnished apartment. He had also started the ball rolling for us to go to Egypt. He delivered the news to me but winked at Guy and cocked his head. Guy looked back at Vus with a blank stare and said, "That's great, Dad," and walked into his room.
For three weeks, in the musty hotel off Central Park West, we lived a life alien to everything I had known. Retired people, sick and discarded, shuffled along the hallways, whispering passionately to themselves. At all hours they inched frail feet along the lobby's worn carpet. They never looked up, or spoke to anyone, just continued traveling, staying close to the walls, their heads down, pushing the dank air.
Guy began to speak in a lower register and Vus and I whispered even in the bedroom. Our comings and goings ere furtive and quiet. Only Rosa visited me during those weeks. I didn't want anyone else to know that we had moved underground and joined a pack of tragic moles.
I kept telling myself it was only for three weeks. A person could stay on a torture rack, or fast, for three weeks. It was just as well that we left New York with no fanfare, and no sad farewells. Vus went to Egypt to prepare a place for us while Guy and I traveled to San Francisco. I needed to see my mother. I needed to be told just one more time that life was what you make it, and that every tub ought to sit on its own bottom. I had to hear her say, "They spell my name W-O-M-A-N, 'cause the difference between a female and a woman is the difference between shit and shinola."
At the airport she looked worn, although she was wearing too much nut-brown powder and the lipstick was so thick that when we kissed hello, our lips made a sucking sound. Her happiness at seeing us was brief.
On the way home she confirmed the suspicions which arose the moment I had seen her. She drove her big car poorly and talked about trifling matters. Vivian Baxter was very upset.
She settled Guy into his old room on the downstairs floor of the big Victorian house, and asked me to join her in the kitchen. She began to talk, over tall and strong drinks.
She had sent me a photograph of her new husband. He was a dark-brown good-looking man, and she had raved about him in her letters to me. They had sailed together and played on the beaches of Tahiti and Fiji and in the bars of Sydney, Australia. Their marriage sounded like a frolic: Two lovers in a boat put out on a calm sea. But as she talked, seated at her kitchen table, I saw that the relationship was floundering, and she was straining every muscle to keep it afloat.
"He means well, baby, and he tries to do well, but it's the drink. He just doesn't know how to control it."
Her face was sad and her voice trembled as she put fresh ice and Scotch in our glasses. Her husband was away on a long trip and she was finding it hard to manage her loneliness.
The next few weeks brought a change in our relationship which I never expected: We reversed roles. Vivian Baxter began to lean on me, to look to me for support and wisdom, and I, automatically, without thinking about it, started to perform as the shrewd authority, the judicious one, the mother. Guy was disconcerted by the new positions in the family. He became rigidly courteous, smiled less and assumed a sober stateliness which sat awkwardly on the shoulders of a teenage boy.
Vus called from Cairo to say that our tickets were waiting at a local travel agency, and it was impossible to hide my relief.
When I told Mother that we would be leaving soon, she came out of her doldrums for a few hours of celebration. She was thankful, she said, not only for my support but that she had raised a woman who could stand up to a crisis. She reminded me that there were too many old females and not nearly enough women. She was proud of me and that was my going-away gift.
We left San Francisco with her assurance that she would work out the difficulties in her own life and we were not to worry. Her last bidding was not easily carried out. I sat through the entire journey, from San Francisco to Los Angeles to London to Rome, with the concern for my mother riding in my lap. Only when we left Rome's Fiumicino Airport did I start to thin k about Egypt, Vus and the life my son and I were beginning.
Whether our new start was going to end in success or failure didn't cross my mind. What I did know, and know consciously, was that it was already exciting.