Below the surface lurks the Iron

By Vision Reporter

Added 28th November 2009 03:00 AM

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, bears striking resemblance, spiritually, to its namesake in the UK. After my flight from Manhattan, I said to the two in the car with me, “This is so reminiscent of England’s Oxford or Cambridge.” My remark didn’t go down

By John Nagenda

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, bears striking resemblance, spiritually, to its namesake in the UK. After my flight from Manhattan, I said to the two in the car with me, “This is so reminiscent of England’s Oxford or Cambridge.” My remark didn’t go down well, even though they, like me, were foreigners: Aggrey from Uganda and Nat from South Africa. Harvard pride?

Aggrey started recounting tribulations undergone recently, right here at Harvard University. A refrain formed in my head, Below the surface lurks the Iron. When my plane had landed Aggrey was waiting for me, with Nat, whom I had not met before although an immediate rapport was established. We arrived at Aggrey’s, “married quarters”, his young twins were crawling about our legs, long and cool drinks were fetched; and the story unfolded.

Aggrey was the ideal kind of student the American government would like to bring over to study. He had been a great athlete at school in Uganda and been awarded an athletic scholarship to Harvard. Here he had been for four years, distinguishing himself on the athletics field, making the cover of a national track magazine and winning trophies left and right. But this model student, also Pan-American President of the East African Students Association, suddenly took it into his head to be awkward. He wrote a letter to the New York Times strongly questioning American policy overseas, especially in the trouble spots of Santo Domingo, Vietnam and Congo. The Times did not publish the letter but referred to it editorially. However the Harvard Crimson printed it in full.

The cat was among the pigeons! Two bulky men visited him at home from the F.B.I. The questions were ridiculous: “Who wrote this letter for you?” - “I am at Harvard. They teach us to write.” “How much did the Reds pay?” They said he was not to receive any visitors from New York without their permission, not to contact the papers again and not convene any more Association meetings. Failing this they would bounce him out of the country.

Meanwhile he was sure his letters were being opened and his telephone bugged. His answer was to ask me to stay with him (I was from New York) and to report his persecutions to the Harvard Crimson; the publication carried a pungent editorial criticising the F.B.I. We marvelled at the incredible near-sightedness of the whole incident. Aggrey had enjoyed himself greatly at Harvard and would have been an enthusiastic reporter of the American Way of Life. Now in one derisive but decisive blow, as he was packing to go home, the whole image had soured for him.

Later I tried to ring my sister Jane in New York. Even as I picked up the receiver, the operator was already on the line. It could have been coincidence, but did the very walls around have ears? I felt boxed-in. For a moment I remembered the lawyer in my New York hotel room saying, Thank God America was the country where anybody could say anything without being molested, where the individual had absolute freedom of speech and movement!

Next day Aggrey took me to Roxbury, the crumbling Boston “Harlem”. It was a sight to numb you to silence. The houses themselves appeared to be in a state of shock with their windows gaping open like mouths. The people leaning against doorways or sitting down on their steps staring into the street might have been from another world. I could drive into all the Harlems of the world, report my findings with fire and horror, but I was then free to move on; the mess had nothing on me.

We came to a sign signboard announcing, ‘The Professional and Businessman’s Club’. We couldn’t decide whether this title was a sardonic joke or merely telling the weaker brethren to keep out. In the cellar where the club was there was a group of perhaps 12 Negro men and women sitting around a bar. All the men wore suits and ties, the women discreet cocktail dresses. The sign upstairs began to make sense. Very near our table was a piano on which two matrons cheerfully performed, one playing the piano staccato style, the other, accompanying with a thin wobbling voice. A man came over and introduced himself to Aggrey, taking him away to the bar to introduce him to the others. It transpired he had seen his picture in the paper together with an article on Aggrey’s experiences with the detectives.

Now everybody clucked. ‘You have to look out brother, or they will get you.’ ‘You Africans don’t know how to be smart with whitey, man.’ ‘One morning somebody will find you dead.’ ‘Be cool man; forget about the whole thing.’

As we walked out soon afterwards, the wind was blowing vast pieces of paper against the signboard, and against our legs. Suddenly I felt deflated and very sad. (Aggrey is Aggrey Awori; Nat is Nat Nakasa, who was mysteriously to fall to his death from a window in New York not long after).

Below the surface lurks the Iron

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