(an excerpt from Maya Angelou's memoir A Song Flung Up To Heaven published in The Guardian book section)
The old ark was a Pan Am jet and I was returning to the United States. The airplane had originated in Johannesburg and stopped in Accra, Ghana, to pick up passengers.
Malcolm X, on his last visit to Accra, had announced a desire to create a foundation he called the Organisation of African-American Unity. His proposal included taking the plight of the African-Americans to the United Nations and asking the world council to intercede on the part of beleaguered blacks. The idea was so stimulating to the community of African-American residents that I persuaded myself I should return to the States to help establish the organisation. We all read Malcolm's last letter to me.
I was shocked and surprised when your letter arrived but I was also pleased because I only had to wait two months for this one whereas previously I had to wait almost a year. You see I haven't lost my wit. (smile)
Your analysis of our people's tendency to talk over the head of the masses in a language that is too far above and beyond them is certainly true. You can communicate because you have plenty of (soul) and you always keep your feet firmly rooted on the ground.
I am enclosing some articles that will give you somewhat of an idea of my daily experiences here and you will then be better able to understand why it sometimes takes me a long time to write. I was most pleased to learn that you might be hitting in this direction this year. You are a beautiful writer and a beautiful woman. You know that I will always do my utmost to be helpful to you in any way possible so don't hesitate.
Your brother Malcolm
I knew I was not ready for New York's strenuous energy, but I needed to explain that to my New York friends.
Most especially, I had to speak to Malcolm.
"Maya, so you finally got here. How was the trip?"
"You stay at the airport, I'll be there to pick you up."
I interrupted. "I'm going straight to San Francisco. My plane leaves soon. I'll be back in a month . . ." I explained that I needed to be with my mother and my brother, Bailey.
Malcolm said, "I had to leave my car in the Holland Tunnel. Somebody was trying to get me. I jumped in a white man's car. He panicked. I told him who I was, and he said, 'Get down low, I'll get you out of this.' You believe that, Maya?"
I said yes, but I found it hard to do so. "I'll call you next week when I get my bearings."
The golden morning was definitely a San Francisco Sunday. I dressed quickly and left the house. I found myself at the end of Golden Gate Park's pan-handle, and I realised that my mother's close friend lived nearby.
Aunt Lottie Wells had come to San Francisco from Los Angeles 10 years earlier.
Her telephone rang as we were sitting down to the table. She answered it in the hall. She returned. "It's Ivonne for you," she said, grinning. "She called your house and your mother told her you would probably stop by here."
Ivonne was my first adult friend, and I knew we would spend some delicious hours talking about ourselves, the men we loved and the ones who got away. I picked up the phone. "Hey, girl. Where are you? How are you doing?"
"Maya, girl, why did you come home? Why did you come back to this crazy place?" There was no cheer in her voice. "These Negroes are crazy here. I mean, really crazy. Other-wise, why would they have just killed that man in New York?"
I took the phone away from my ear and looked at it.
I cradled it in my hands, then I laid it down on the hall table. I walked into a bedroom and locked the door.
I didn't have to ask. I knew "that man in New York" was Malcolm X and that someone had just killed him.
Bailey was at my door. "Open this door, My. Open the damn door or I'll break it down."
He would. I turned the lock.
He looked at my face. "I'm sorry, baby. Go in the bathroom and wash up. I'm taking you somewhere. Somewhere important. Go on."
Bailey waited in the hall, holding my purse and jacket. He remained silent as we walked out of the residential district and on to the Fillmore area. Shouts, conversation and laughter seemed to cascade out of every door. I was shocked to see life going on as usual.
I said to Bailey, "They don't know."
Bailey grunted. "They know. They don't care."
He steered me through the open door of the Havana Bar, where the jukebox music vied with customers' voices.
I looked into the grinning faces and was stumped. In Ghana, I had read that the mood of unrest here was so great that the black community was like a powder keg that would take very little to detonate. But only hours after their champion had been killed, black men and women were flirting and drinking and revelling as if nothing had happened. Bailey ordered two drinks, and when the bartender slid them in front of us, my brother asked him, "Hey, man, you hear what happened to Malcolm X?"
"Well, hell, man. They shot him. You know they say, you live by the sword, you die by the sword."
He added ignorance to ignorance by pronouncing the 'sw' in sword like the 'sw' in the word 'swear'.
In seconds I was outside in the clear air. Bleakness and grief welled up in me, and I started to cry.
"Maya. Maya." Bailey spoke softly. "Let me tell you what's going to happen. In a few years, there are going to be beautiful posters of Malcolm X, and his photographs will be everywhere. The same people who don't give a damn now will lie and say they always supported him. And that very bartender, the one with the sword" - Bailey mispronounced the word as the bartender had done - "he will say, 'Malcolm was a great man. I always knew he was a great man. A race man. A man who loved his people.'"
Address of the Excerpt
Gary Younge's 2002 Interview of Maya Angelou.