Summer days can be hellish in New York City. The city is really nothing but a giant heat sink. But on this particular summer day, a cold front had moved through and cooled things off considerably. I'd been fortunate enough to wrap up my business meeting by noon, and with nothing on my calendar for the afternoon, the rest of the day was my own. I went home to my apartment and changed from my business suit into more casual attire. I put on blue slacks and a gray-and-white striped dress shirt, then laced up my hiking boots for an excursion into Manhattan.
I've lived in New York for a couple of years, and I still enjoy the opportunities to go out and explore the City. The weather was perfect for doing so, with sunny skies and a light breeze blowing. The afternoon sunlight had a peculiar golden quality about it. I walked the streets of Manhattan, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the eddying whirls of humanity that I passed. I was in my element and loving every minute of it. I walked through unfamiliar places where the signs in the shop windows were an alien scrawl. And then, I came to a store with the name "KwaZulu!" over the door in large black-red-green letters.
There were various types of Africana in the window: Kente cloth, tools and implements, a painted Zulu shield, a spear with a wicked-looking point. Next to the spear, an exquisitely carved wooden mask. I have more than a passing interest in Africana, so I opened the door and entered the shop, to the accompaniment of a clanging bell.
The only person in the shop was a young woman in her mid-twenties. She had her back to me, and was placing some sort of pottery up onto a shelf. The first thing I noticed was her hair: It was intricately braided with several beads woven into each braid. The beads were in a rainbow pattern, with the cooler colors of indigo, violet, blue and green flowing from her scalp and the fire colors of yellow, orange and red at the tip of each braid. Her skin was a creamy cafe au lait. She wore a brightly-colored blouse, a primitive red, yellow and black design, which matched the fiery tips of her braids, and khaki slacks that were just tight enough to show the well-rounded curve of her buttocks. The leather sandals she wore didn't add much to her height, but she was still a tall woman, almost as tall as I am at five feet, eleven inches.
She gracefully placed the pottery piece into the spot where she wanted it, then spun around to look at me as the sound of the bell died. Her braids swirled and clacked, a kinetic rainbow, and then I saw her face. She was, in a word, beautiful. Her features were regular and even. Her chin was dainty, her lips full, sensual and painted a luscious raspberry red. Her nostrils were only slightly flared, her cheekbones high, and then I looked into her astonishingly unlikely hazel-colored eyes, and I was lost.
"Can I help you?" she asked. I suppose she was used to having that effect on men.
"Uh, yes," I replied, coming out of my daze. "I was interested in finding out some information on that mask in the window. It's a beautiful piece."
"Yes, it is," she replied. She walked over to me, and then we walked side by side to the window at the front of the store. I was close enough to her to smell her perfume. It was flowery with an undertone of musk. I tried to be surreptitious about inhaling her scent, which I was beginning to find quite intoxicating.
"This is a Cihongo mask, made by the Chokwe peoples in the Congo," she told me, lifting the wooden mask up to her breasts and holding it out to me for inspection. It was carved from a dark hardwood, and was about fifteen inches long by nine inches wide. It had slit eyes which would allow the wearer to see from behind it, and an oval-shaped mouth through which to breathe. The nose was only an afterthought, with no nostrils at all. Beneath the mouth was a flat, stylized beard which stuck straight out from the chin and looked like nothing so much as a hockey puck. There were ritual scarification marks on the cheeks, and an ornate hairstyle at the top of the mask, fashioned from rope.
Behind the mask, I could see that her upper curves were as delightfully rounded as the lower ones. She must have felt my gaze on her breasts, because she jiggled the mask in front of them as if to get my attention. Then, she continued telling me about the mask.
"The Cihongo mask was worn by the chief of the tribe, and was used in ritual dances along with its female counterpart, the Mwana Pwo mask, in order to ensure the fertility and prosperity of the community," she explained.
"It's beautiful," I told her. "How much is it?"
She gave me a strange look and then told me flatly, "It's not for you."
"What?" I asked. "Is it already sold?"
"No," she replied. "It's just not for you, Mr..."
"DeBeers," I told her, "Martin DeBeers."
"Is that Dutch?" she asked.
"South African, actually," I told her. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Most black people have no love for South Africans, even with the changes that have taken place in the last few years. "My grandfather was South African," I continued. "My grandmother was an American, the daughter of a diplomat. My grandfather died in World War II, fighting the Nazis. My grandmother returned to the States with her children after the war. I don't think she ever went back."
"Is that why you are interested in African art work?" she asked, her eyes still narrowed.
I nodded. Then I asked, "Is there any particular reason you won't sell me that mask, Miss..."
"I'm Billie, just Billie," she told me. "As in Holliday." I smiled.
"What's funny?" she asked.
"I had you pegged for a Lakeisha or a Shonda," I said.
Billie frowned at me and said, "Mama loved the blues, so that's where the name came from. Not all African-Americans feel the need to give their children African or faux African names."
"I'm sorry," I told her. "I shouldn't have grinned about that."
"No," she said. "You shouldn't have. You white people don't know how it is, do you?"
"How what is?" I asked, a little puzzled.
"Well, your ancestors chose to come over here. They assimilated, or their kids did, but you didn't completely lose your cultural identity when it happened. My ancestors, OUR ancestors, were dragged over here on the slave ships. With very few exceptions, our cultural identity was completely lost. The oral tradition loses out after awhile. And so we become almost like you. Almost. But we've never been assimilated, and we never will be. Many of us are alienated, strangers in a strange land. We feel a tugging at our heartstrings for a homeland that most of us have never seen and most of us never will. Africa!" She spoke the last word in a breathy sigh. Then she said it again, a little bolder, "Africa!"
"Africa!" I replied. She looked sharply at me as if to see if I was mocking her. I wasn't. "Billie, you're not the only one who longs for an ancestral homeland." I paused for a moment. "My father told me stories about growing up in Africa as a boy. He made it sound so exciting, and then when the stories ended, there we were, back in Missouri. Boring old Missouri. And I would wonder what my life would have been like if my grandfather hadn't died in the war."
"Well, for one thing, your father wouldn't have met your mother," Billie told me. "Just like my ancestors wouldn't have gotten together to eventually make me, if things had been different." She smiled briefly and said, "From our perspective, it all turned out for the best."
I smiled back and said, "I guess you're right." I looked around the shop at all of the various items of African art and culture, then asked, "Have you ever been there, Billie?"
Her eyes grew dreamy. "Oh, yes! I took a vacation there four years ago, and traveled from Senegal and Gambia all the way down to the Congo, then across to Kenya. It was the trip of a lifetime for me. I cried when I took my first steps off the plane in Senegal. So did a lot of other African-Americans. I learned so much..." she trailed off.
"So, about the mask: I take it that it has some sort of sentimental value to you and you're not willing to part with it? Or is it just that you don't want to sell it to someone who isn't an African-American?"
She laughed and said, "Mr. DeBeers..."
"Martin, please," I interrupted.
"Okay, Martin, I would have to admit that you are just as much an African-American as I am."
"I never really thought about it like that," I replied with a grin.
"It's true!" she said. "But you don't know what you are asking for with that mask..." Her voice trailed off and looked me in the eye, hard. Then she ran her gaze over me from my head to my feet, like a general inspecting a soldier's haircut, uniform and shoeshine. She seemed to make up her mind about something, then gave me a lopsided grin and picked up the Cihongo mask.
"I'll make you a deal, Martin," she said. "Try on the mask. If it fits you, I'll sell it to you." This was getting a little weird, but I really wanted the mask, so I was game to try it on. She handed me the mask, and I reached behind it and unlaced the leather straps that would hold it in place. Then, I brought it up to my face and positioned it so that I could see through the eyeslits. Billie came up behind me and tightened the straps down.
It didn't fit, at least not very well. It had been made for a man with a broader, flatter face than mine. I heard Billie walk to the door of the shop and lock it, then I heard the clatter of the blinds being drawn. Billie came back into my view with another mask in her hands, and she pulled it up to her face as I watched.
.... There is more of this story ...