Trading Paris for New York
AS RECORDED in The Tropical Notebooks, Morie’s highlights of the winter 1973 tour to North America started in Ellicott City where he met Virginie, a middle-aged single parent of two teenagers between thirteen and nineteen. Tom took Morie to his cousin’s home in Silver Spring where he was re-united with half a dozen of his cousins including Temba Sesay. In the huge living room of a four-bedroom Summit Hill apartment, for a whole week, Morie heard much comments on the effects of the oil crisis, names of multiples family members left behind in Africa, most of whom dreamed of coming to America, often popped up. Morie went out grocery shopping with Temba for a guide; he was impressed by the modest $50 weekly grocery bill the five-member Summit Hill household footed easily since everyone was gainfully employed. Husein and Sheika worked in construction, Kareem worked at night as a security guard, and the only female of the household, Kadija—Temba’s girlfriend, worked on calls for an employment agency as a nurse’s assistant. Temba’s night-shift parking attendant job allowed him attend classes at Howard University during the day.
The narratives of the Silver Spring household confronted, evaluated, and synthesized those elements of comparisons acquired in Europe and America. Somewhat Temba held an unassuming leadership position in the household, and he received frequent letters from Africa demanding remittances he couldn’t afford to send. Temba toured Morie around the District of Columbia, starting with such landmarks as Union Station, the White House, the Washington Monument, FDR and Lincoln Memorials, the Mall and a number of Smithsonian National Museums.
Overall, the provincial character of the District was unappealing to Moriba Laye Bainaka. The city was built like rows of boxes, with rusty, paint-peeling bridges. Aside from the K Street corridor, the Mall, and a southwest perimeter lined with impressive government buildings, a great deal of the District was left to be desired, especially the rows of dilapidated homes and buildings in the predominantly black neighborhoods along the 14th Street and Georgia Avenue corridors. Redlining was evident as night and day with black neighborhoos in need of investment they were obviously denied. The District’s scarcity of interracial couples pointed to a division along racial lines, and Morie found suspicious its seeming lack of cultural identification of the black population as a whole. Where were the statues of black heroes such as Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.? Morie didn’t see any thoroughfare named for black historic figures. Moreover, he learned that even though the District’s status as capital provided steady employment to a fast growing diverse population, nearly eighty percent of which were people of color, it also stripped them of basic rights of citizenship taken for granted by the residents of other states of the Union since they had no voting representation in Congress.
At a Café in Georgetown Temba treated Morie to a real, Parisian-like espresso; took him to see The Godfather at a U Street movie theater, and bought the KC and the Sunshine Band’s Get Down lyrics on a black disk from a street vendor while they visited the Smithsonian Space Museum. During the stop at Howard University Morie’s eyes lingered from one female face to another, especially those gorgeous Afro women. His comment, “Black women are so foxy!” prompted Temba to put some sense in his head with a warning: “Those foxy ladies wouldn’t even look at you until you start riding a Lincoln.” Temba reflected.
Now Temba was behind the wheel of his raggedy 1965 Plymouth, wisely driving northbound below speed limit along famous 16th Street corridor toward Silver Spring. Morie noted how 16th Street was bordered on both sides with magnificent mansions, churches and a variety of other temples of worship.
“So, what is it that resonates with you about America?” Temba asked sounding serious.
“I love conveniences such as the telephone,” Morie said. “The quasi absence of traffic jams is remarkable. There is no comparision between our pigeon holes in Paris and the huge apartment you guys have in Silver Spring. Last but not least unemployment is low in the immigrant communities. All of you folks hold a job. If I decide to migrate, I’d plan on settling in New York,” Morie asserted confidently.
“Why New York?”
“Because the thrill of living is there, cousin.”
“New York’s tough city, jobs are scarce, housing is out of reach, and crimes are rampant,” Temba warned.
“For a start I’m assured of Amara’s help.”
“What does he do for a living, Amara?”
“Like you, he’s parking lot attendant. That’s how he pays rent and school fees.”
“What is he majoring in?”
“Again, like you, business administration.”
“I have nothing to teach a big boy like you, Morie.” Temba paused briefly at a stop sign. “You’ve rolled your ball all over Europe already. “However,” he went on, “it may be a good idea to remind you that the progress of mankind started when people put an end to nomadic lifestyle and settled into sedentary activities.
“Like agriculture, right?” Morie looked into his cousin’s shiny black eyes as if they and not his ears were the recipient of his words. “Temba,” he argued, “do you ever think how man lived before agriculture and its hierarchical order changed pre-historic lifestyle?”
“What are you getting at, Morie?”
“Think of stateless, pre-agency societies; imagine matriarchal societies and the type of freedom women had.”
“Our fathers successfully practiced polygamy, right? What’s your point?”
“Temba, can you imagine a society where women would be allowed to wed several husbands?”
“American GOP wouldn’t allow it,” Temba asserted.
“What does that acronym stands for?”
“God Old Party—it’s the Republicans. Again, what’s your point?”
“Here is my point. Would a matriarchal system be more or less violent than our capitalist system based on the exploitation of women?”
“Women’s rights have evolved tremendously, Morie.” Temba argued. “They have as much rights if not more than men nowadays. I’m quite sure you’ve heard of feminists like Firestone and—”
“Gloria Steinem? I’m quite familiar with famous French Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex, even though I never read it. When I met Monique, a feminist of sorts, she was more into Violette Leduc’s writings. But Temba, tell me—when did women get voting right in America? 1920 sounds like yesterday to me.” Morie argued. “Do women have equal pay for equal work? Are women allowed to bare their chest in public? How many women have conquered the White House since—?
“Morie,” Temba’s polite delivery was meant to dismiss that which he considered to be Morie’s attempt to evade the real issue. “I think you need to consider what tomorrow has in store and stop living like rolling Peter—”
“Who doesn’t amass a mouse?” Morie completed his cousin’s sentence. “That’s right. What does the future hold?” He added speaking to himself. “How does one escape poverty? How do you build an American Dream? That depends on one’s imagination—”
“How are things with Monique?
“At the moment, my life with Monique is up in the air,” Morie said. He went on, “Though she wants us to migrate together to Canada, things can go either way. I might cut her loose if she turns out to be excess baggage.”
“You sound like a bloody liberal individualist,” Temba observed.
“Right,” Morie admitted, “I’m a product of Western consumerism. I want it all for me and then I discard that which is no longer useful. Aren’t you?”
“I have a girlfriend!”
“Of course. But time will tell how long Kady sticks with you.”
“So you’re leaving tonight for Canada?”
“Then you may have to ask Sheika to take you to Union Station because I’m working tonight.” Remembering how Morie had ran up the Silver Spring phone bill with frequent calls to Paris, Temba wanted had demanded a Parisian suit from his cousin as a compensation. So he added, “I still want that gray suit of yours though, or your Salamander boots.”
“Okay for the suit,” Morie settled. “Are we even now?”
“Perfectly, cousin. Come back with Monique when you guys decide to migrate.”