“If the heart of Africa remained elusive, my search for it had brought me closer to understanding myself and other human beings.”
In the 5th volume of her autobiography, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes Maya Angelou embarked on an explicitly spiritual telling of return in recounting her time in Ghana. Finding herself there only a few years post-independence, when Ghana was still known as Black Mecca, she was part of a small but lively and accomplished cohort of African-Americans who imagined they had found the promise of liberation realised in the young nation. In the time she spent in Ghana she formed strong bonds with members of the African-American community, Ghanaian elites, and ordinary Ghanaians. She found many reminders that the voice of ancestors was always already present in hers, regardless of distance. However, the ache for home as “the safe place where we can go as ourselves and not be questioned” could not be soothed in the reality she found herself in. Taking its title from a spiritual about walking in Heaven, in this volume, Maya Angelou gives a gift in how to keep going when Heaven isn’t all you expected it would be.
She was one of around 200 African-Americans who moved to Ghana in the post-independence period after Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah opened up the country. Part of a cohort that set out with a “desire to accomplish a biblical tale”, they were referred to as the Revolutionary Returnees, constituting the first wave of a pattern of Diasporic return to Ghana over the past 6 decades. This wave, as the collective title indicates, was indelibly invested in the liberation project. It included writer, actor, journalist, and activist Julian Mayfield, and social worker and photographer Alice Windom. This biblical tale did not go as smoothly as some had expected and visions of open arms and assimilation quickly gave way to a much more complex set of relationships. Dreams had to be separated from reality as the group navigated a homeland with concerns that sometimes held them at arms-length.
Over time, as Maya Angelou became embedded amongst the Revolutionary Returnees, her home became a hub of this community and she was sometimes tasked with setting the expectations of those passing through. New arrivals had to know that their hopes may not be those of Ghanaians and they would have to find ways to navigate their new homes with the distance of cultural and class variances. In one particular interaction, a couple arrived at her home, drawn to the promised of Ghana by the magnetism on Nkrumah and other revolutionary figures such as Guinea’s Sékou Touré. Along with Alice Windom, she unpacked the couple’s desire to suckle from the breasts of Mother Africa, letting them know what an inadequate metaphor this was for the situation they now found themselves in. As told by Alice : (…) Full version in something we Africans got issue 11
In something we Africans got issue 11,