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Opinions of Saturday, 22 February 2020

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

When Malcolm X came to Ghana

Malcolm X Malcolm X

In May 1964, my African-American friend, the novelist, Julian Mayfield, (now deceased) told me that Malcolm X had come to Ghana!

He, Maya Angelou and a few other African Americans, including a soft-spoken but very serious and hard-working lady called Alice Windome, had formed an organising committee for the visit and were taking him round to meet important Ghanaians and to get him to explain the black American struggle for freedom and civil rights, to them. He needed to explain his own peculiar position in the struggle, for the Western media were full of reports about how violent the methods he preached about were, and how his speeches were full of hatred for whites. At the time, Ghana was at a most interesting point in its political development.

Seven years had passed since we achieved our independence, and President Kwame Nkrumah had definitely decided that his government was going to be a 'socialist' one. But what brand of socialism were we to adopt? This was the subject of a heated debate inside and outside Dr Kwame Nkrumah's Convention People's Party.

Policy was evolving all the time.

Reports circulated in Accra had it that Malcolm X was a violent man who was organising the "Black Muslims", nominally under the leadership of an ageing Elijah Muhammad but actually under the intellectual tutelage of Malcolm X ,to use violent methods to cause a revolution in the USA, which would achieve for its black population, the freedom and economic advancement that had been denied them for centuries.

Julian Mayfield trusted in the integrity and justness of Malcolm X's message. But he knew that it would pose difficulties for Dr Kwame Nkrumah, who, at that time, was engaged in delicate negotiations with the US Government on how the Volta River Dam at Akosombo was to be financed. Already, Nkrumah's socialist pronouncements had annoyed the American Government. The last thing Nkrumah needed therefore was to play host to a wild-eyed revolutionary from the USA, who wanted to overthrow the US system of racism!

Julian wanted Malcolm X to hold a press conference at the Ghana Press Club, where Nkrumah's "socialist boys" and party press guys -- Eric Heymann of the Evening News, T D Baffoe of The Ghanaian Times and Kofi Batsa of The Spark -- all hung out. I was on the executive committee of the Press Club, and Julian briefed me and sought my advice on how to go about getting Malcolm to get his message across.

The party press boys opposed the idea of giving Malcolm a platform. They argued that there were whites from socialist countries in Europe helping Ghana's economic development. We should be careful not to offend them with vitriolic messages about "white devils" (Malcolm X?s name for all whites). "The man is a racist. We don't want any racist ideas," someone said. Besides, another argued,Malcolm X was a devout Muslim. The policy of a socialist party, such as the CPP claimed to be, was based on "scientific socialism" and could not be seen to be encouraging religious dogmas, especially, ultra-religious ones, such as the Black Muslims espoused.

Unfortunately it was not the virtue of the party press guys to read widely. I, on the other hand, believed that a newsman should be made of information from head to toe. And my curiosity had led me to read a lengthy interview that the American magazine, Playboy, had conducted with Malcolm X, which had been published verbatim.

I admit that I did not normally read Playboy for its interviews! It always had a centrefold in which a very pretty woman was photographed in all sorts of positions, completely naked! For a young man full of testosterone, the centerfold was an extremely attractive diversion. And Playboy was so clever that after it had fulfilled one?s fantasies regarding the breast sizes and nipple shapes of extremely beautiful women, it gave one serious issues to ponder on. It was that philosophy of free discussion that had led them to interview Malcolm X.

When I saw that the prejudices and misreporting that had preceded Malcolm X would thwart Malcolm from being allowed to give his message to the Ghanaian media, I made an impassioned speech to my fellow journalists, pleading for freedom of expression for him. I pointedly asked, "Are we saying that a whiteman?s magazine known for its ability to titillate young men, Playboy, is more intelligent than us? Has better news values? More tolerant of the views of a black leader than us?

The party press guys thereupon dropped their objections and Malcolm X was able to address the Ghana Press for over two hours, and answer all manner of questions.

Now, Drum magazine, under my editorship, had been publishing articles about the Black struggle in the US (including a lengthy one by Julian Mayfield).. When news of my stand at the Press Club reached the African-American community, my stock with its members rose even higher.

A member of the community, the lovely Maya Angelou, breathed my name out asd usual in that deep mellow voice of hers, looked me up and down, and gave me that gap-toothed smile (known as "egyereh") that Ghanaian men from certain ethnic groups admire so much. I was extremely flattered!

It was as a result of that visit that Maya Angelou began to work with Malcolm X in his newly formed Organisation of African Americam Unity (OAAU). By then, Malcolm?s message had evolved: he told us that he would work with Martin Luther King to achieve the goals of civil rights that they were both fighting for -- King with non-violent methods, and Malcolm "by every means necessary".

But Malcolm qualified his proposed cooperation with King, with the words, "If after we have tried your non-violent methods for some time, we realise that we are not achieving our goals, then you must agree to try MY methods!!" I am sure that if Malcolm had lived beyond February 21 1965 -- when he was brutally gunned down whilst addressing a meeting in New York -- the civil rights movement would have taken a different turn in the US, years following 1965. Maya Angelou's books are easily found through a search on Google. She wrote very well and had an easy way of telling stories through and about people.She also had a very good memory: she mentioned me in her book, All God's Children Must Have Running Shoes. I appreciated the fact that she spelt my surname right!.

I once heard Julian Mayfield relating to Maya and others, a conclusion he and his friend, James Baldwin, had come to about American literature. "There hasn?t been anyone really great since Ernest Hemingway!" they had agreed.

In terms of sales and the breadth of reader appeal, I think Maya Angelou's ouevre may have equalled Hemingway's, or even surpassed him. Women did not form a great part of Hemingway's readership, but men did read Maya Angelou! Julian Mayfield would, were he alive, laugh uproariously at the irony contained in that sentence.

To imagine that Maya Angelou, who was essentially, at that time, a student of both himself and James Baldwin, would have grown to fill Hemingway's shoes! That is no small thing.