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Three Books from Exile: Black Power; The Color Curtain; and White Man, Listen!
The table had been cleared and the coffee was being poured. The Easter Sunday luncheon was almost over and we were stirring the sugar in our cups. It was so quiet that the footfalls from the tranquil Paris street below echoed upward. It was one of those moments when, for no reason, a spell of silence hangs in the air. I sipped my coffee and stared at the gray walls of the University of Paris that loomed beyond the window.
One of my guests, Dorothy, the wife of George Padmore, the West Indian author and journalist, turned to me and asked:
"Now that your desk is clear, why don't you go to Africa?"
The idea was so remote to my mind and mood that I gaped at her a moment before answering.
"Africa?" I echoed.
"Yes. The Gold Coast," she said stoutly.
"But that's four thousand miles away!" I protested.
"There are planes and ships," she said.
My eyes ranged unseeingly about the room. I felt cornered, uneasy. I glanced at my wife.
"Why not?" she said.
A moment ago I had been collected, composed; now I was on the defensive, feeling poised on the verge of the unknown.
"Africa!" I repeated the word to myself, then paused as something strange and disturbing stirred slowly in the depths of me. I am African! I'm of African descent. . . . Yet I'd never seen Africa; I'd never really known any Africans; I'd hardly ever thought of Africa. . . .
"Kwame Nkrumah, the Prime Minister, is going to table his motion for self-government in July," Dorothysaid.
"It would be a great experience for you," my wife said.
I heard them, but my mind and feelings were racing along another and hidden track. Africa! Being of African descent, would I be able to feel and know something about Africa on the basis of a common "racial" heritage? Africa was a vast continent full of "my people." . . . Or had three hundred years imposed a psychological distance between me and the "racial stock" from which I had sprung? Perhaps some Englishman, Scotsman, Frenchman, Swede, or Dutchman had chained my great-great-great-great-grandfather in the hold of a slave ship; and perhaps that remote grandfather had been sold on an auction block in New Orleans, Richmond, or Atlanta. . . . My emotions seemed to be touching a dark and dank wall. . . . But, am I African? Had some of my ancestors sold their relatives to white men? What would my feelings be when I looked into the black face of an African, feeling that maybe his great-great-great-grandfather had sold my great-great-great-grandfather into slavery? Was there something in Africa that my feelings could latch onto to make all of this dark past clear and meaningful? Would the Africans regard me as a lost brother who had returned?
"Do you think that the Gold Coast will be self-governing soon?" I asked. I genuinely wanted to know about the political situation in the Gold Coast, yet another and far more important question was trying to shape itself in me. According to popular notions of "race," there ought to be something of "me" down there in Africa. Some vestige, some heritage, some vague but definite ancestral reality that would serve as a key to unlock the hearts and feelings of the Africans whom I'd meet. . . . But I could not feel anything African about myself, and I wondered, "What does being African mean . . . ?"
". . . and they are fighting for self-government," Dorothy was explaining. "It would be wonderful if you could be there when the first black Prime Minister in history asks the British for the freedom of his people."
"Yes," I said. "How long does it take to get there?"
"One day by plane and twelve days by ship," Dorothy said.
Was Africa "primitive"? But what did being "primitive" mean? I'd read books on "primitive" people, but, while reading them, their contents had always seemed somehow remote. Now a strange reality, in some way akin to me, was pressing close, and I was dismayed to discover that I didn't know how to react to it.
"Just what level of development have the people there reached?" I asked Dorothy.
"You must ask George about that," she said. "He's been there. . . . But you'll find their development mixed. You'll find Chris-tians and pagans . . ."
"I want to see the pagans," I said impulsively.
"Why?" my wife asked.
"I know what a Chris-tian African would have to say, but I don't know what paganism is—"
"It's all there," Dorothy said emphatically. "And if you're going to attend the session of the Legislative Assembly in which the Prime Minister will make his bid for freedom, you'd better see about passage."
"I'll go by ship, if I go," I said. "That would give me time enough to read up on the history of the country."
"You must go," my wife said.
The fortuity of birth had cast me in the "racial" role of being of African descent, and that fact now resounded in my mind with associations of hatred, violence, and death. Phrases from my childhood rang in my memory: one-half Negro, one-quarter Negro, one-eighth Negro, one-sixteenth Negro, one thirty-second Negro. . . . In thirty-eight out of the forty-eight states of the American Federal Union, marriage between a white person and a person of African descent was a criminal offense. To be of "black" blood meant being consigned to a lower plane in the social scheme of American life, and if one violated that scheme, one risked danger, even death sometimes. And all of this was predicated upon the presence of African blood in one's veins. How much of me was African? Many of my defensive-minded Negro friends had often told me with passion:
"We have a special gift for music, dancing, rhythm and movement. . . . We have a genius of our own. We were civilized in Africa when white men were still living in caves in Europe. . . ."Black Power
Three Books from Exile: Black Power; The Color Curtain; and White Man, Listen!. Copyright © by Richard Wright. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.