“For it is Africa that struts around in our rounded calves, wiggles around in our protruding butts, and crackles in our wide and frank laugh,” writer and activist Maya Angelou wrote in her book All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, on her recount of her time living in Africa.
From the late 1950s until 1962, the Phenomenal Woman writer, then in her early 30s, lived in South Africa and Cairo, Egypt before heading to Accra, Ghana for an additional two years.
Angelou along with several other young, Black activists and figures including W.E.B. DuBois, formed a small expat community. During this time it is said that more than 200 Black Americans from Atlanta, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Dallas expatriated to the West African nation after then leader Kwame Nkrumah, opened the doors— even extending personal invitations— and welcomed them to become citizens.
Angelou’s initial plan was to move to Liberia where she was offered a job with the Ministry of Information, but in passing through Accra, she fell in love with the city’s charm.
According to Angelou, Peace Corps and USAid workers on the ground at the time, caused many Ghanians to lose trust in Americans living in the area. Because of this, the group of Black Americans avoided them, too. The divide between locals and Black Americans caused what she described as a moral blow, many feeling that their “return” to Africa was in vain.
“We have tolerated a lot to be ignored,” Angelou wrote.
Despite the disconnect she remained in the country, along with the others. They realized that the differences of the two groups stemmed from the fact that the Americans were free while locals were not. It was also realized that language barriers prevented the groups from bonding.
“Our inability to speak their language obviously poses a problem. Without a common language, it’s very difficult to communicate.”
Angelou was inspired to learn Fanti, the local language, which led her to secure a position as an administrative assistant with the University of Ghana.
In 1964, Malcolm X, like many prominent Black figures of the time, visited Ghana. During that trip he met with Angelou and the two planned to work together on building the Organization of Afro-American Unity. This was the organization that Malcolm X started once he left the Nation of Islam. The project also prompted Angelou to leave Ghana to return to the US in 1965.
“Long before, I had been taken from Africa by force. […] The second time leaving will be less painful, for I knew then that my people never quite left Africa,” Angelou wrote in preparation for her return to the States. “We had sung of the continent in our blues, we had sang the cries in our gospels, we danced it in our breakdowns. From Philadelphia to Boston and to Birmingham, we changed her color and modified her rhythms.”
Sadly, shortly after her return Malcolm X was assassinated. At the encouragement of her good friend, James Baldwin, she embarked upon her remarkable career as a writer.