THE HEART OF A WOMAN
I made my way through the busy streets of Harlem, dressed in my best and wearing just enough makeup. Along the way, I received approval from lounging men or passersby.
"Hey, baby. Let me go with you."
"Oowee, sugar. You look good to me."
"Let me be your little dog, till your big dog come."
I smiled and kept walking. The compliments helped to straighten my back and put a little swing to my hips, and I needed the approval.
I was en route to the SCLC to meet Bayard Rustin. I had seen him a few times at fund-raising parties since the closing of Cabaret for Freedom, but we had not had a private meeting since the first time in the organizational offices, and I imagined a thousand reasons why I had been asked to return.
The receptionist told me Mr. Rustin was waiting. He stood up and leaned over the crowded desk, offering me his hand.
"Maya, thank you for coming. Have a seat. I'll call Stan and Jack."
I sat and ran through my mind all the possibilities. There was a discrepancy in the figures from Cabaret of Freedom. They wanted me to produce another revue. They wanted me to write a play about Martin Luther King and the struggle. They didn't know I couldn't type, so they were going to offer me a job as secretary. They needed volunteers and ...
Stan and Jack came in smiling (that could mean that the receipts had been O.K., but I wasn't sure).
We all shook hands, exchanged the expected small greetings and sat down.
Bayard said, "You speak first, Stanley."
Stan Levison cleared nonexistent phlegm from his throat. "Uh, Maya, you know we're proud and pleased at the way you handled Cabaret for Freedom."
Jack interrupted. "The content was brilliant. Just brilliant. The performers ..."
Stanley harrumphed and continued, "We think you've got administrative talent." He looked at Bayard.
Just as I thought. I was going to be offered a typing job.
Bayard spoke. "We are going to have a shift in the organization and we're going to need someone, a trustworthy person, reliable, and someone who knows how to get along with people." He looked over at Jack.
It was Jack's turn. "We watched how you dealt with that cast. You kept order; and if anybody knows, I know the egos of actors. You never raised your voice, but when you did speak everyone respected what you had to say."
He nodded to Stanley, who began to speak immediately.
"You understand what the struggle is about. You did say you grew up in the South, didn't you?"
I nodded. Stamps, Arkansas, with its dust and hate and narrowness was as South as it was possible to get.
"We are sorry to say that Bayard is going to be leaving the SCLC."
I looked at Bayard. His long, handsome face was lined, and his eyes appeared troubled.
Oh, he was sick. He had to be sick to leave an organization he loved so dearly and had worked for so diligently. I was so saddened by my speculation that I did not connect Bayard's leaving and my invitation to the office.
''I'm going for a short rest." Distance was already in Bayard's voice, confirming my assessment. "And I'll be joining A. Phillip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters." His face said he was already there.
I said, ''I'm sorry to hear that, Bayard. Is there anything I can do?"
"Yes." Bayard was back with us, connected again to the office conversation. "We're looking around for someone to take my place. I suggested that you were capable."
Only shock, which held me viselike, prevented me from jumping and running out of the office and down the street. Take Bayard Rustin's place. He had worked for the Quakers, led marches in Washington, D.C., during the forties, had been to India and worked with the Untouchables. He was educated, famous, and he was a man.
I didn't say anything because I couldn't speak.
Stanley said, "When Bayard came up with your name, we were quite surprised. But we've thought about it and come to an agreement. You're the person we would all like to run the office."
Jack nodded a slight happy smile to me.
Bayard said, "The position that's being offered to you, Maya, is coordinator for the SCLC. Of course, that's a little like an umbrella. Many chores fall under its spread."
I blurted out stupidly, "I can't type."
The men laughed, and I could have kicked myself for giving them the chance to patronize me.
Jack said, "You'll have a secretary to do your typing." He laughed again. "And answer your telephone."
Stanley said, "Now, let's talk salary. You know the SCLC is in need of money and always will be, so we are able to pay only a living wage."
I was torn. I could think of nothing more gratifying than to work for Martin Luther King, and the Lord knew I needed a living wage. But maybe bodaciousness was leading me to a dangerous height where I'd find breathing difficult. And another nagging uneasiness intruded upon my excitement: Suppose I was being used to force Bayard out of his position.
I gathered myself and stood. "Gentlemen, thank you. I am honored by your invitation. I'd like to think about it. I'll telephone you tomorrow." And I was out the door, down the stairs and back to the safety of Harlem streets.
John Killens agreed to meet me at a downtown hotel where he had taken a room to do a rewrite. We sat in the hotel dining room.
"If you feel that way, call Bayard. Ask him directly. He's a man. Personally, I don't believe he'd have suggested you if he didn't want you to take the job."
"All right, but what is a coordinator? Can I do it? I'drather not try than try and fail."
"That's stupid talk, Maya. Every try will not succeed. But if you're going to live, live at all, your business is trying. And if you fail once, so what? Old folks say, Every shuteye ain't sleep and every goodbye ain't gone. You fail, you get up and try again."
He could talk, he was already a success. I wasn't convinced. "Anyway, coordinator is a nice way of saying fund-raiser. You'll be putting on affairs and sending out mailing lists and speaking and arranging speaking engagements to raise money. There's no mystery to that. And if you're not going to sing again 'ever in life,' then this sounds like your best bet."
Bayard met me between appointments. "If you take the position or if you refuse it, I'm leaving. Understand now, I will always support Martin. Even with my life. But it's time for a move."
He stood beside my barstool at Frank's Restaurant on 125th Street. "I've worked with Randolph for many years and he wants to build a new organization for union workers. I'm not leaving the war, just joining another battle. Take it. You'll do a good job." He patted my shoulder and walked out, taking his mystery and leaving me still not quite decided.
I HEARD on the morning radio that some black youngsters had sat down at a dining-room counter in North Carolina and that Martin was in jail again. The telephones rang constantly and the office swirled with activity. Hazel Grey, who had come to work as my assistant, was allotting chores to volunteers as I walked in. She looked up from her desk.
"Maya, the printing returned and a bunch of kids from Long Island are coming over this morning to stuff envelopes."
"Good." I walked into my office. Hazel followed. "They're coming from an all-white school."
"Why? Who invited them and how old are they?"
"High school students. Boys and girls. Their counselor called; he's coming with them." That white youngsters were going to brave Harlem was in itself startling, but that a white adult, in a responsible position, not only agreed, but was willing to officiate in the unusual situation was befuddling. It looked as if the world that would never change was changing.
I had a brief meeting with the black volunteers.
"You're going to have some help in an hour or two with jobs you've been unable to complete."
A grandmother from a local church said, "Bless the Lord."
I went on, "Thirty young people are on their way, and we have to decide on how they can help us. We may not have this opportunity again. Now, you tell me what needs to be done."
"The mimeograph machine needs to be moved away from the window. The sunshine is melting the ink."
"I wish somebody would take all that junk out of the back office. "
"Somebody ought to file that stack of papers in the hall."
"We need the steps cleaned. Don't look right to come to Martin Luther King's office and have to walk up dirty steps."
The counselor looked like an old Burgess Meredith. He was dressed in grey and looked as grey as a winter sky. His casualness was studied and his contrived shamble attractive. He was shorter than most of his charges.
"Miss Angelou, these students have been excused from their classes. In support of the students sitting in in North Carolina, they chose to give the day to the Martin Luther King organization. We are ready to do whatever job you assign us."
He stood in the middle of the youthful energy like a dull drake among a brood of white ducklings.
I called in the volunteer captains and introduced them. Hazel and I sat through lunch in my office. We chuckled over the white youngsters who were scrubbing the steps and sweeping the floor and doing the jobs for us which were being done in their homes and in their streets by black women and men. We knew that what we were seeing was a one-time phenomenon, so were determined to enjoy it.
The children and their counselor filed in to say goodbye. They accepted my thanks and the thanks of the SCLC. I made a little speech about the oneness of life and the responsibility we all had to make the world livable for everyone. They left and we turned up the volume on the news station. Martin was still in jail. The police had dragged the blacks out of the diner. The North Carolina black community was angry, but nothing had happened yet. The office was drifting back to normal when Hazel buzzed my phone.
"Hey, Maya. Got something else for you. Are you ready?"
"Two groups of whites are coming tomorrow and a high school class from an integrated school. Have we got work for them?"
I listened, speechless.
Hazel laughed, "I asked you if you were ready."
The weeks ran together, the days raced. White and black people were changing as Martin Luther King traveled to and from jail and across the United States, his route covered by the national media. Malcolm X could be seen stripping white television reporters of their noise on the evening news. In Harlem, the Universal Negro Improvement Association formed in the twenties by Marcus Garvey was being revived, and the Ethiopian Association was coming back to life.
White movie stars attracted by Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were lending their names to the struggle, and their sincerity stood up against the most suspicious scrutiny. One evening at Belafonte's house, Shelley Winters explained why she was glad to contribute her money and her time to the SCLC.
"It's not that I love Reverend King or all black people or even Harry Belafonte. I have a daughter. She's white and she's young now, but when she grows up and finds that most of the people in the world are black or brown or yellow, and have been oppressed for centuries by people who look like her, she's going to ask me what I did about it. I want to be able to say, 'The best I could.' " I was still suspicious of most white liberals, but Shelley Winters sounded practical and I trusted her immediately. After all, she was a mother just like me, looking after her child.
At home Guy talked about the movement. I was pleased that he and Chuck had joined a youth group of the Society Against Nuclear Energy, and I gave him permission to participate in a march protesting nuclear war.
Avoiding the evening subway rush, I always stopped in a bar near the l2Sth Street stop of the A train. The place was rough because its bartender and regulars were living lives of little gentleness.
The ice would slide away in my glass while street-wise men and world-wise women marveled over the nation's excitement.
"You see them Negroes in North Carolina. They mean business."
"Charlie better straighten up. We're tired of this shit."
"Man, that Martin Luther King. He's not a man made of blood."
"He's a fool. Love your enemies? Jesus Christ did that and you saw what happened to him."
"Yeah, they lynched him."
"Black people ought to be listening to Malcolm X. He's got it right. Crackers are blue-eyed devils."
"I don't go for that hate talk. Negroes ain't got time to be hating anybody. We got to get together."
* * *
I RETURNED from lunch. In the outer office Millie Jordan was working over a table of papers. Hazel was busy on the telephone. I walked into my office and a man sitting at my desk, with his back turned, spun around, stood up and smiled. Martin Luther King said, "Good afternoon, Miss Angelou. You are right on time."
The surprise was so total that it took me a moment to react to his outstretched hand.
I had worked two months for the SCLC, sent out tens of thousands of letters and invitations signed by Rev. King, made hundreds of statements in his name, but I had never seen him up close. He was shorter than I expected and so young. He had an easy friendliness, which was unsettling. Looking at him in my office, alone, was like seeing a lion sitting down at my dining- room table eating a plate of mustard greens.
"We're so grateful for the job you all are doing up here. It's a confirmation for us down on the firing line."
I was finally able to say how glad I was to meet him.
"Come on, take your seat back and tell me about yourself."
I settled gratefully into the chair and he sat on the arm of the old sofa across the room.
"Stanley says you're a Southern girl. Where are you from?" His voice had lost the church way of talking and he had become just a young man asking a question of a young woman. I looked at him and thought about the good-looking sexy school athlete, who was invariably the boyfriend of the high-yellow cheerleader.
I said, "Stamps, Arkansas. Twenty-five miles from Texarkana."
He knew Texarkana and Pine Bluff, and, of course, Little Rock. He asked me the size and population of Stamps and if my people were farmers. I said no and started to explain about Mamma and my crippled uncle who raised me. As I talked he nodded as if he knew them personally. When I described the dirt roads and shanties and the little schoolhouse on top of the hill, he smiled in recognition. When I mentioned my brother Bailey, he asked what he was doing now.
The question stopped me. He was friendly and understanding, but if! told him my brother was in prison, I couldn't be sure how long his understanding would last. I could lose my job. Even more important, I might lose his respect. Birds of a feather and all that, but I took a chance and told him Bailey was in Sing Sing.
He dropped his head and looked at his hands.
"It wasn't a crime against a human being." I had to explain. I loved my brother and although he was in jail, Iwanted Martin Luther King to think he was an uncommon criminal. "He was a fence. Selling stolen goods. That's all."
He looked up. "How old is he?"
"Thirty-three and very bright. Bailey is not a bad person. Really."
"I understand. Disappointment drives our young men to some desperate lengths." Sympathy and sadness kept his voice low. "That's why we must fight and win. We must save the Baileys of the world. And Maya, never stop loving him. Never give up on him. Never deny him. And remember, he is freer than those who hold him behind bars."
Redemptive suffering had always been the part of Martin's argument which I found difficult to accept. I had seen distress fester souls and bend peoples' bodies out of shape, but I had yet to see anyone redeemed from pain, by pain.
There was a knock at the door and Stanley Levison entered.
"Good afternoon, Maya. Hello, Martin. We're about ready."
Martin stood and the personal tenderness disappeared. He became the fighting preacher, armed and ready for the public fray.
He came over to my desk. "Please accept my thanks. And remember, we are not alone. There are a lot of good people in this nation. White people who love right and are willing to stand up and be counted." His voice had changed back to the mellifluous Baptist cadence raised for the common good.
We shook hands and I wondered if his statement on the existence of good whites had been made for Stanley's benefit.
At the door, he turned. "But we cannot relax, because for every fair-minded white American, there is a Bull Connor waiting with his shotgun and attack dogs."
I was sitting, mulling over the experience, when Hazel and Millie walked in smiling.
"Caught you that time, didn't we?"
I asked her if she had set up the surprise. She had not. She said when Martin came in he asked to meet me. He was told that I was due back from lunch and that I was fanatically punctual. He offered to play a joke by waiting alone in my office.
Millie chuckled. "He's got a sense of humor. You never hear about that, do you?"
Hazel said, "It makes him more human somehow. I like a serious man to be able to laugh. Rounds out the personality."
Martin King had been a hero and a leader to me since the time when Godfrey and I heard him speak and had been carried to glory on his wings of hope. However, the personal sadness he showed when I spoke of my brother put my heart in his keeping forever, and made me thrust away the small constant worry which my mother had given me as a part of an early parting gift: Black folks can't change because white folks won't change.
During the next months, Mother's warning dwindled further from my thoughts. The spirit in Harlem was new and old and dynamic. Black children and white children thronged the streets, en route to protest marches or to liberation offices~ where they did small but important chores. Black Nationalists spoke on street corners, demanding freedom now. Black Muslims charged the white community with genocide and insisted on immediate and total segregation from the murdering blue-eyed devils. Wells Restaurant and the Red Rooster served the best soul food and offered great music at evening sessions to parties of blacks and whites and visiting African diplomats. The Baby Grand, where Nipsy Russell had played for years, had closed, but the Palm Cafe was a haven for hard drinkers and serious players. The Amsterdam News was vigilant in its weekly attack against the "forces of evil," and G. Norwood, one of its social and political columnists, kept the community informed on who was doing what, to whom and with how much success.
The national mood was one of action, and the older groups, such as the NAACP and the Urban League, were losing ground to progressive organizations. Young blacks had begun calling Roy Wilkins a sellout Uncle Tom and Whitney Young, a dangerous spy. Only Martin and Malcolm commanded respect, and they were not without detractors.
THE Harlem Writers Guild meeting at Sarah Wright's house was ending. As we were saying goodbye, Sarah's phone rang. She motioned us to wait and answered it. When she hung up, she said excitedly that the Cuban delegation to the United Nations, led by President Castro, had been turned out of a midtown hotel. The group was accused of having brought live chickens to their rooms, where they were to use them in voodoo rites. The entire delegation had been invited to the Teresa Hotel in Harlem.
We all shouted. Those few writers and would-be writers who were not members of Fair Play for Cuba nonetheless took delight in Fidel Castro's plucky resistance to the United States.
In moments, we were on the street in the rain, finding cabs or private cars or heading for subways. We were going to welcome the Cubans to Harlem.
To our amazement, at eleven o'clock on a Monday evening, we were unable to get close to the hotel. Thousands of people filled the sidewalks and intersections, and police had cordoned off the main and side streets.
I hovered with my friends on the edges of the crowd, enjoying the Spanish songs, the screams of "Viva Castro," and the sounds of conga drums being played nearby in the damp night air.
It was an ole and hallelujah time for the people of Harlem.
Two days later, Khrushchev came to visit Castro at the Teresa. The police, white and nervous, still guarded the intersection of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, which even in normal times was accepted as the most popular and possibly most dangerous crossroad in black America.
Hazel, Millie and I walked down a block from the office, pushing through the jubilant crowd. We watched as Castro and Khrushchev embraced on 125th Street, as the Cubans applauded and the Russians smiled broadly, showing metal teeth. Black people joined the applause. Some white folks weren't bad at all. The Russians were O.K. Of course, Castro never had called himself white, so he was O.K. from the git. Anyhow, America hated Russians, and as black people often said, "Wasn't no Communist country that put my grandpappa in slavery. Wasn't no Communist lynched my poppa or raped my mamma."
"Hey, Khrushchev. Go on, with your bad self."
Guy left school, without permission, to come to Harlem with a passel of his schoolmates.
They trooped into the SCLC office after the Russian and Cuban delegations had left the neighborhood for the United Nations building.
Millie called and told me my son was in the back, stamping envelopes.
Surprise and a lack of sensitivity made me confront him before his friends.
"What are you doing here? You're supposed to be in school."
He dropped the papers and said in a voice cold and despising, "Do you want to speak to me privately, Mother?"
Why couldn't I know the moment before I had spoken what I knew as soon as my question hit the air. I turned without apology and he followed.
We stopped and faced each other in the hallway.
"Mother, I guess you'll never understand. To me, a black man, the meeting of Cuba and the Soviet Union in Harlem is the most important thing that could happen. It means that, in my time, I am seeing powerful forces get together to oppose capitalism. I don't know how it was in your time, the olden days, but in modern America this was something I had to see. It will influence my future."
I looked at him and found nothing to say. He had an uncanny sense of himself. When I was young I often wondered how I appeared to people around me, but I never thought to see myself in relation to the entire world. I nodded and walked past him back to my office.
Abbey, Rosa and I decided what was needed was one more organization. A group of talented black women who would make themselves available to all the other groups. We would be on call to perform, give fashion shows, read poetry, sing, write for any organization from the SCLC to the Urban League that wanted to put on a fund-raising affair.