THE HEART OF A WOMAN
One Monday morning Hazel told me that over the weekend she had heard a South African freedom fighter speak. He was so thorough and so brilliant that even the biggest fool in the world had to see that Apartheid was evil and would have to be brought down. His name was Vusumzi Make (pronounced Mah-kay).
A few volunteers, standing in the outer offices, had also heard the speaker. They joined in the conversation with added compliments.
"The smartest and calmest African I've ever heard."
"A little fat, but cute as he wants to be."
"Reminded me more of Dr. King than anybody I've ever seen."
I asked his name again.
Hazel said she had written it down and that the man was in the United States to petition at the United Nations against South Africa's racial policy. He was speaking again later in the week. Maybe we could attend the lecture together. I said maybe.
A mound of cardboard boxes stood against my office wall. I opened them all. Each contained a beautiful piece of luggage and a note: "Best Wishes to My Bride." r carried pleasure to my desk.
Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr., had agreed to give a benefit performance for the SCLC at Carnegie Hall. Jack O'Dell, a highly respected organizer, had joined the organization, and he was breaking down the hall's seating. Stanley, Jack, Jack Murray and I had to separate sections and price seats.
Hotel accommodations had to be arranged for the famous "Rat Pack" and its entourage. Musicians' union officials had to be contacted and tickets drafted and ordered. High-paying patrons needed to be solicited and church groups contacted and asked to take blocks of seats.
We were working late on Friday afternoon when Hazel said she had to go. She reminded me that Make was speaking and she was meeting her husband across town early so they could get good seats. (She knew my being able to go along was out of the question.)
As she left, I asked her to take notes for me and tell me all about it on Monday.
Work took over my weekend. I saw Guy only during the few hours on Saturday when he came to the office to join other black and white young volunteers. Thomas was working a night shift, so r took a late-night subway to Brooklyn and walked the quiet streets home. Guy's note on the dining-room table informed me that he was at a party. "Home at 12:30 A.M." Twelve-thirty was absolutely the limit. After all, he was barely fifteen. r was strict and he was usually agreeable. r would lie across my bed with a book and stay awake to make sure that he honored his note.
Morning found me in the same position and Guy sleeping innocently in his bedroom.
Make had been more eloquent than the previous time. Hazel said a heckler had asked why sixteen million Africans allowed three million whites to control them, reminding Make that we black Americans were only a tenth of the United States population, but we had stood up and fought back ever since we were brought here as slaves.
Hazel said Make was devastating. First, he spoke of the black American struggle. He knew the history better than most black Americans. He talked about Denmark Vesey and Gabriel, and all the known leaders of slave rebellions. He quoted Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey. He said that Dr. DuBois was the father of Pan-Africanism, having attended the Pan-African Congress in Paris in 1919, where he stated clearly the idea of a free and united Africa. Make then, systematically, explained how Africa was bludgeoned by slavery, having her strongest sons and daughters stolen and brought to build the country of the slaves. He spoke of colonialism, the second blow that brought the continent to abjection. He said the spirit of Africa lives, but it is most vital in its descendants who have been struggling away from the motherland. At home, in South Africa, the people needed help and encouragement from those of us who, knowing slavery firsthand, had found the oppressor to be a formidable but opposable foe.
I made a note to go to hear Make the next time he spoke. Again, my responsibilities crowded out my intention. John Killens phoned on Thursday morning.
"Maya, I heard Make last night. Kind of expected to see you there."
I explained that we were nearing the Carnegie Hall date.
"Well," he said, "if you're free tomorrow night, come over to my place. Grace and I have asked a few people over to meet him."
"I'm working late tomorrow night, too."
"Come anytime. We'll get started around eight. We'll probably be going on until one or two. Make is the representative of the Pan-African Congress. That's the radical organization, but he's coming with Oliver Tambo, the head of the African National Congress. The ANC is to the PAC what the NAACP is to the Black Muslims. The two get along, though. Try to make it."
Before leaving for work the next morning, I woke Guy and asked him to go to John's for dinner, and said I would meet him there at nine-thirty.
Chagrin at being a capricious and too-often-absent mother would get me to the Killenses' house.
I left the office a little early, and after John opened the door, I walked through the milling crowd of acquaintances and strangers to find Guy, Chuck, Barbara and Mom Willie in the kitchen. Guy looked up, then back at his watch and grinned.
Mom Willie offered me food, but I declined and said I'd better go shake hands with the honored guests.
Guy said, "He's going to knock you out, Mom. We talked a little. He's more brilliger than the slighy toves." Guy was .working so hard to appear grown-up, I was surprised to hear him use his favorite childhood phrase. Make had made my reserved son relax and talk like a child again.
I went to the living room and greeted Paule and John Clarke, Sarah Wright and Rosa.
The air in the room crackled like static. John Killens introduced me to a small, trim dark man.
"Maya Angelou, meet Oliver Tambo, a warrior from South Africa." Tambo shook my hand and bowed.
John continued, "And come here and meet Vusumzi Make, another South African warrior."
Make's appearance surprised me. I had imagined him very tall and older. He was three inches shorter than I and his baby face was surrounded by fat. He had broad shoulders and a wide waist, all encased in a beautifully cut pin-stripe suit, and he was in his early thirties.
"Miss Angelou. Glad to meet you. You represent the black hero Martin King, as I represent the South African black hero Robert Sobukwe. Hazel Grey has been telling me about you. If we had not met I would have known you anyway. I've met Guy."
His accent was delicious. A result of British deliberateness changed by the rhythm of an African tongue and the grace of African lips. I moved away after smiling, needing to sit apart and collect myself. I had not met such a man. He was intense and contained. His movements were economical and delicate. And he didn't seem to know that he was decidedly overweight. John's introduction was probably apt. He was a warrior, sure of his enemies and secure with his armament.
Rosa left her African diplomat to join me on the couch. "You met Make. He'd been asking to meet you. Take it easy, kid." She smiled for me alone and went back to her escort.
Paule Marshall stood in front of me. "Listen, Maya Angelou. What did you do to Make? He says he wants to know you better."
I told her I only said hello.
She said, "Must have been a hell of a hello. He asked me how well I knew you and if you were married." Paule laughed and flicked her eyes. "I didn't say a word. It's up to you."
John and Grace corralled their guests back to the living room, where everyone found seats. After the chairs and sofas filled, people rested on footstools or wedged themselves between couches on the floor. John introduced Oliver Tambo, who talked about South Africa, the ANC and its leader, Chief Albert Luthuli, in terse and controlled anger.
We applauded the man and the cause that brought him to the United States. Then John introduced Mr. Make, and my love no longer was in the hands of Thomas Allen.
Make started talking from a seated position, but passion lifted his voice and raised him out of the chair. He had been a defendant charged with treason in the trials after the Sharpville Massacre. The Africans, ANC and PAC members, along with people who belonged to neither organization, had met in 1958 to oppose oppression in their country. They had been inspired by Martin Luther King and the SCLC. (He looked over at me and nodded.) They had been encouraged by Malcolm X and the Muslims to set themselves apart from their oppressors.
When he finished, he asked for questions and sat down, dabbing at his face with a cloud of white handkerchief.
My first reaction was to wish I could be the white cloth in his dark hand touching his forehead, digging softly in the corners of his lips. Intelligence always had a pornographic influence on me.
He asked for questions and was immediately satisfied.
"Which organization was the most popular in South Africa?" Was he really flirting with me?
"Did Luthuli and Sobukwe get along?" Did fat men make love like thin ones?
"When would the average South African become politically aware?" Was he married?
"What could we, as black Americans, do to speed along the struggle?" How long was he going to stay in New York?
Make and Tambo shared the questions, volleying answers back and forth with the ease of professional tennis players.
Make turned. "Doesn't Miss Angelou have a question?" Stage experience kept me from squirming. All attention shifted to me and I shoved my real questions to the back of my head and asked, "Mr. Make, would it be possible to solve the South African problem with an employment of nonviolence?"
He stood and walked to my corner. "That which works for your Reverend King cannot work in South Africa. Here, whether it is honored or not, there is a Constitution. You at least have laws which say, Liberty and justice for all. You can go to courts and exact an amount of success. Witness your Supreme Court ruling of 1954. In South Africa, we Africans are written out of all tenets dealing with justice. We are not considered in the written laws dealing with fair play. We are not only brutalized and oppressed, de facto, we are ignored de jure."
He was standing over me, and I felt lucky. Fortunate to be a black American, and in comparison to him and his people, only slightly impaired by racism. But even more so fortunate. His eyes were on me and I would have had to he thicker than raw pigskin to know that something about me hooked him.
I folded my arms and sat back as he used the time to develop his statement. He finished to standing applause, and was wrapped around in seconds by a group of excited people.
We caught sight of each other through the shifting bodies but he never returned to my corner. After another drink, I went to collect Guy; my days started early and Guy had his bakery job again.
At the door, Make stopped us.
"Miss Angelou, just a minute. Guy, I would be honored to see your mother home."
Make knew that asking Guy's permission would please us both. My son smiled, loving the Old World formality, straight out of The Three Musketeers and the Corsican brothers.
"Thank you, Mr. Make. I am seeing her home."
I could have pinched him until he screamed.
Make said, "Of course, thank you anyway." The big lunk almost bowed from the waist. "I hope we'll meet again, Miss Angelou. Good night. Good night, Guy."
He walked away and we went out the door.
"He doesn't know that you're engaged, or he wouldn't have asked to take you home." Guy chattered all the way. "But he's really smart. He's from the Xhosa tribe. You know, Miriam Makeba's click song; well, that's his language. He was a barrister, that's a lawyer, before he was placed in exile and escaped from South Africa."
"When did he tell you all that?"
"He came into the kitchen and talked to Chuck and Barbara and me. He just walked in, introduced himself and sat down."
Most politicians I had met, excluding Martin Luther King, thought talking to children a waste of their adult time. I was liking the African more and more. And obviously I'd never see him again, and if we did meet, Thomas and my looming marriage stood between us.
The next morning, Paule rang to say she was giving a little party that evening and I had to come. I had another late night at work and once I got to Brooklyn and changed, I really wouldn't be up to going back to Manhattan. She urged me to stop by after work, reassuring me that the party was to be very casual. I said I'd drop in.
Late that afternoon I called John to say how much I enjoyed meeting Make, adding that he was very impressive. He agreed and said I'd get to see him again that night at Paule's. The party was being given for Oliver Tambo and Make. I mulled over the possibilities for hours. If we met and he pursued, would I have the strength to resist and did I really want to? Of course, last night was over, and he might bring a woman to Paule's. If he persisted and if I surrendered, I'd have to break off with Thomas, and my dream of quiet security would evaporate. Make would leave the country and I'd be back to where I was, or even worse. I'd be lonely and broken-hearted.
I took a train directly to Brooklyn. It was Friday night. Guy gulped down his food and gave me a kiss. He was off to a party, but would be in by twelve-thirty.
After a shower, I settled in my bed with a book, a drink and a package of cigarettes. The ghost of Paule's party invaded the room. Specters of laughing black people, shouting and arguing, crowded around my bed. Make was in the middle of the throng, his pretty full-moon face intense, his accent curving words into new shapes, his logic unarguable. If I went to the party ... I called Thomas. He didn't answer. I did have a nice, rather new outfit that I could wear, and open high-heel sandals. Actually, it wouldn't take long to dress and if I took a subway to Times Square, I could change to the AA local and get off three blocks from Paule's building. Within a half-hour, I was ringing her doorbell. Inside, the men and women crowded together in jubilation. The record player was on to a moderate volume, and jazz music weaved among the voices.
I headed toward the living room, pushing through the crowded hallway. As I passed the kitchen, off to my left, I heard Make's voice.
"Miss Angelou." He came to me, grinning a white-teeth welcome. "I had just about given you up." He took my hand. "Paule said you'd come from work. But I suppose you went home to freshen up."
I nodded and excused myself, saying I had to see Paule. In fact, I had to get away from the man's electricity. Sparks seemed to be shooting from him to my nipples and my ears. My underarms tingled and my stomach contents fell to my groin. I had never fainted in my life, but at that moment I felt I was sinking into a warm black and friendly pool.
Paule laughed when she saw me. "I know you didn't wear that to work. You're setting out to get him, aren't you, Maya Angelou?"
I got huffy and denied her accusation. ''I'm going to be married, Paule. I'm no chickenshit floozy."
Her ready temper answered, "Well, excuse the hell out of me." She went to join other guests. I was a fool. I lied and offended my friend at the same time. Make made no further attempt to talk to me.
The music was stopped and Tambo's voice could be heard as the talking quieted. He spoke briefly, repeating the speech of the night before. Ken Marshall asked Make to say a few words, and he walked to the center of the living room. I didn't listen to his words but used the time to study his body. He had closely cut, soft crinkled hair and an even dark-brown skin. Big round black eyes, which moved slowly, taking in the details of his listeners. There were a few hairs on his chin, which he fingered with small hands as he talked. His chest bloomed above an indented waist, then his hips widened out in a nearly feminine voluptuousness. Fat thighs touched, under the sharply creased trousers, and his small feet were encased in highly polished shoes. I completed the investigation and decided Make was the ideal man.
I gave him a few sultry looks, and when his back was turned, I raced downstairs and stopped a cab. I justified the expense of a taxi ride to Brooklyn by telling myself I was paying for my honor.
The American Society for African Culture had its annual black-tie ball on Saturday night in the ballroom of a midtown hotel, and as coordinator for the SCLC, I was expected to attend. Thomas was working late, so Rosa and her escort met me in Manhattan. Her African diplomat wore embroidered pants and a matching voluminous overshirt which reached the floor. The man was blue-black and spectacular. His unquestionable dignity gave the lie to the concept that black people were by nature inferior. His presence alone refuted the idea that our descendants had been naked subhumans living in trees three centuries before, when the whites raided them on the African continent. That elegance could not have been learned in three hundred years.
The dance auditorium was filled with black women made up and coiffed and beautiful in Dior and Balenciaga gowns or in dresses run up by local seamstresses. African women floated, serene-faced in their colorful national dress, and a few whites mingled with black men in tuxedos or outfits like that worn by Rosa's friend. I left my friends to check in at the table reserved for the SCLC. The Greys were watching the dancing couples, and when I greeted them, Hazel jumped.
"Oh, there you are. So you met him after all." I knew who she meant. "He was over here a few minutes ago, asking for you."
I saw him coming across the dance floor, like an ocean liner plying through tugboats toward a pier. He asked me to dance.
He moved surprisingly well for his bulk, and his enjoyment of the dance made him seem less serious. He pulled me to him, and I felt the hardness under the layers of surrounding fat. He laughed.
"You're afraid of me, aren't you? A big girl like you, an American sophisticate, frightened by a little black man from The Dark Continent."
"Why should I be afraid of you?"
He was still laughing. "Maybe you think I'll think you are a missionary and I'll eat you."
"I don't think that. Anyway, if more Africans had eaten more missionaries, the Continent would be in better shape."
He stopped dancing and looked at me with approval. "Miss Angelou, you have every reason to be alarmed. I intend to change your life. I am going to take you to Africa."
I drew my body straight and made my face uninviting. "Mr. Make, I am going to be married in two months. So your plan is impossible."
"I have heard that, but where is the elusive groom? I've seen you three times and, except for your son, you've been without male companionship."
I defended Thomas. "My fiance is working."
"And what does this diligent man do?"
He was smirking. He knew the answer to his question.
"He's a bail bondsman. And I'm going to see him after the dance tonight."
Make grabbed my hand and led me back to my table. He pulled out my chair and after I sat, he leaned to me and whispered, "I owe it to our people to save you. When you see your bloody fiance, tell him that I'm after you and that with me every day is Saturday Night and I'm black and I'm dangerous."
He left and my heart threatened to stop.
I went home early and alone. Guy was asleep and the house was cavernous.
Thomas answered the telephone. Had I enjoyed the fancy-dress ball? No, he was too tired to come and pick me up. No, I shouldn't call a taxi. After all, we'd see each other the next day. He was taking me to the movies.
Sleep didn't come to me willingly. Thoughts raced, chasing each other like lively children in a game of tag. Marry a man I hadn't even slept with and go to Africa. Leave Martin King and my own struggle. But all the black struggles were one, with one enemy and one goal. Thomas would shoot me with his service pistol. Why did Make want me? fie didn't know me or my background. But then, I didn't know him either. What about Guy? Surely Make didn't expect me to leave my son. A chance for Guy to finish growing up in Africa. Suppose the man was too fat to make love. I knew of black women who had maimed husbands who refused them sex. I wouldn't go to that extreme; on the other hand, I didn't think I would stay with a man who couldn't satisfy me. Speculation was a waste of time. I was going to marry Thomas, and we'd live a nice complacent life in Brooklyn.
The next night the movie was deadly boring. I got up on the pretext of wanting a soft drink and I sat in the lobby smoking and wondering what Make was doing. Patrice Lumumba was in New York. Rosa was going to meet him and his assistant Thomas Kanza. Abbey and Max were performing in the Village. Malcolm X was speaking at a public meeting in Harlem, and somewhere Make was showering his listeners with glittering words. Guy was attending a youth rally in Washington Square Park. The world was on fire.
Thomas headed the car toward his street.
"I don't feel like going to your house," I told him.
He looked over at me, but I kept my face straight ahead.
"Are you all right? It's not that time of month, is it?"
"No. I just want to go home."
No, he hadn't offended me. No, I wasn't sick.
I told him we were living in exciting times and that because of the United Nations, Africans and oppressed people from all over the world were making New York the arena where they fought for justice.
"I haven't lost anything in Africa and they haven't lost anything in our country. They can all go back where they came from as far as I'm concerned. Anyhow, I get all the excitement I need in my job and I don't want to hear about politics at home."
It was a long speech for Thomas and a disastrous one for our relationship. I could imagine future aborted conversations when I would be silenced. Days, weeks, months would pass with neither of us going beyond small talk.
I prepared dinner at home and waited alone for Guy to return.
The next days brought bouquets of mixed flowers and vases of red roses to cover my desk and make me feel like a desirable courtesan. The accompanying cards read "From Vusumzi Make to Maya Angelou Make." Hazel looked worried and Millie grinned as if she and I were sharing a secret.
Thomas chose the same time to have more wedding presents delivered. Young, shabbily dressed men hauled boxes up the stairs and deposited them in the outer offices. "Tom to Maya." I opened the cartons to find an expensive record player covered in smooth leather and two more pieces of matching luggage. It was a flattering present, but I couldn't dispel the idea that the set was stolen property.
I refused Make's daily invitations to lunch and declined Thomas's offer to visit his apartment.
Confusion had me spread-eagled. I couldn't run nor could I dodge.
Office politics were further irritations. Despite the long hours and what I thought of as my diligent commitment, two more men had been brought in to help in the running of the organization. I had had nothing to say about their employment.
After a business lunch with the president of a national Negro women's club where we discussed the selling of a large block of tickets, it was suggested that I report the results to the office newcomers. When I refused to do so, insisting on my own autonomy, loyalties began to shift. Welcoming smiles faded or gleamed sunshine-bright. Small groups of workers crowded the desks of the new arrivals, while Hazel and Millie used every slight occasion to enter my office, bringing me news or coffee, fresh papers or mail.