Kwame Johnson was teaching a Modern African Literature seminar at Boston University. He was twenty-seven, with a newly accorded doctorate from UCLA. His dissertation examined emerging indigenous voices in French and British colonial Africa after World War II. He was in his third year of teaching and had been granted a leave of absence for two years to deepen his experience in Africa by serving as a cultural diplomat in Cape Town. He would start as soon as the school year ended.
Livie was twenty-one, an International Relations major. In her final term of college she considered reading novels about an improbable part of the world a fitting way to declare her readiness to be done with schooling. She enrolled in the seminar, thinking it a kind of joke. She had not, however, anticipated the instructor’s effect on her. From the first class session, she felt a magnetic attraction to him. Kwame noticed her, was drawn to her – at least partly because he sensed that he intrigued her. As the class sessions unfolded, he told himself that he responded to her only because she listened more attentively than other students; an instructor always appreciated that.
When Livie visited his office in the seventh week of the term to discuss a paper she was writing, they both found it difficult to concentrate. In the paper she discussed Wanja, the troubled but alluring prostitute heroine of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood. Livie saw Wanja as a metaphor for Kenyan society and its embrace of the West’s corrupting capitalism. She sought out Kwame ostensibly to test her interpretation. Was her notion, she asked him, a plausible reading of Ngugi’s artistic intention?
Kwame shrugged. He was interested in what she thought, he said, not what he thought. They looked at one another. Sexual tension filled the small office. The point of the paper, Kwame explained, was to argue an insight, her insight. She nodded. Silence engulfed them. Kwame felt his blood pounding and could not look at her. Instead, he glanced at his watch. He stood, saying that he had forgotten an appointment and must leave.
“Don’t be afraid of this,” Livie said.
Kwame frowned as if to signal that he could not believe what he had heard.
“Are you seeing anyone?” she asked. “I’m not. Not since last winter.”
“I look forward to reading your paper,” Kwame said. He turned away to stuff papers into a backpack.
When he tried to leave the office, she stood in the doorway blocking his path. “You do feel this,” she said. “I know you do. We don’t need to pursue it now.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Kwame said primly. They looked at one another. He laughed, embarrassed, excited. “I’m an instructor; you’re a student. For the record I have no idea what you’re talking about. None.” Then he added, “And pursuing it is not a good idea.”
Livie grinned at him. “We won’t pursue it till the term ends.” She cocked her head as if awaiting his agreement, still blocking the doorway, and he would not trust himself to touch her to get past. “Are you seeing anyone?”
“No. And I’m escaping this place immediately after exams.”
“Don’t be afraid,” she told him.
To his surprise Kwame felt jangled by the directness of this approach. A young lecturer hitting on a student was an excellent way to doom an academic career, particularly if the lecturer were a tenuously middle class black and the student a very patrician white. But the girl intrigued him; he had to admit to being fascinated by the prospect of mating with that blond self-assurance. But no! He was off to Africa; he would not pursue it.
By the end of high school Kwame had decided that circumstance made his head American, educated by whites, while birth made his body African. At university and grad school he avoided African-American women. They were seeking husbands. He’d had a relationship or two with white girls, but they drained away the essence of his black manhood. At university he sought women students from Africa. They empowered his body, deepened his essence. Leaving their beds, Kwame wondered what it would like to become African.
Some African women flirted charmingly. The sparkle in their eyes, the laughter in their voices, caused stirrings in Kwame’s groin. But moving forward with them in love-play proved disappointing. They did not know how to kiss. They brought no passion to foreplay. None of them screamed or bit him or scratched his back in climaxing. Still he felt empowered by touching something deeply African in them.
Late the afternoon he filed his grades Livie Carlyle returned to his office. He was emptying shelves, packing books into boxes. He was disconcerted to see her. “Is this about the final?” he asked, dissembling.
“I don’t think so,” she said, grinning. He went on packing books. “I came to take you to dinner.” She smiled mischievously. “Because… Your course meant so much to me. Because… You made Africa come alive for me.“ She began to laugh. He smiled. “Because… I think you are going to be one of those teachers I’ll always remember.”
“And I’m not to be afraid of this.”
“That’s right.” Then: “Why are you packing?”
“I leave for Washington day after tomorrow. Then on to Africa.”
“No!” She seemed genuinely distressed, but he nodded. “Then you really must come to dinner,” she said. “My place first for a drink. Then we’ll go out. My treat.”
He examined her and shook his head. “We’ll meet and go Dutch.”
She looked at him a long time. “You have been with a white girl before.”
He nodded. She shrugged: So?
“And you’ve been with black guys?”
“I don’t think of you as black, Kwame. May I call you Kwame? I think of you–”
“Please don’t.” He agreed to meet at her place for drinks.
When he turned up, she served champagne. Her father, she said, had sent her a magnum to celebrate her graduation. To the surprise of neither, they snacked on hors d’oeuvres and went to bed. Her lovemaking pleased him. Livie knew how to kiss. Her foreplay was inventive, passionate. She moaned at climax and held the skin of his back as if she would rip it from his bones.
Then as moonlight splashed in from the window, they lay side by side and got acquainted. Livie said she wanted to get as far away as possible from school. Kwame was to take no offense, but she might never read another book. “How long are you going to be in Africa?” she asked. When Kwame explained that he would be in Cape Town for two years, she rose to an elbow and said, “You can’t!”
He felt like a fake, he told her, teaching African literature when he hardly knew the continent. He had spent two weeks each in Nigeria and Senegal, three days in Ghana; that was all. Now he’d be living in Africa. That excited him.
Livie made a face and rose from the bed. Kwame watched her walk through a slice of moonlight and return from the living room with the magnum of champagne. They drank from it and again made love. And talked once more.
He left before dawn while she slept. He never expected to see her again.
Six weeks after he arrived in Cape Town, Livie appeared in the USIS library. “I told you I intended to get as far away as I could from school,” she told him. She needed a place to stay for a week. He had already begun dating African women, but he agreed to let her camp in his apartment. In the context of South Africa, it was edgy and cool for a black man to be living with a white woman. She was with him for the rest of his tour.
Returning to the States excited them both. When their plane landed at JFK, Livie was wild with joy. She chattered non-stop to her father Jack as he drove the couple into Manhattan. South Africa, she said, had been fascinating; the country was so diverse and cruelly beautiful. It had been intriguing to watch the first cracks appear in apartheid. The government had transferred Nelson Mandela from Robben Island to the more comfortable Pollsmoor Prison. “Kwame felt exalted,” she told Jack. Because it meant eventually Mandela would be freed. Kwame acknowledged that he had whispered to African contacts that diplomatic whisperings said change was on its way. ”He was really emotional about it,” Livie said. “He would choke up when we discussed it.”
Kwame was amused to see Livie’s exhilaration, to hear her chatter. He was also pleased to be home. If the cracking of its structures of oppression foreshadowed the collapse of apartheid, he knew it might be forever before Mandela was actually released. Still there had been a burst of freedom; unfortunately, that burst also involved a dark side. Crime rose. Burglaries soared in the Sea Point section of Cape Town where Kwame and Livie had their apartment. Car-jackings became frequent. Livie often felt unsafe. Whites who had silently tolerated the sight of a tall, blonde American girl of rather patrician beauty paired with a black man now began to mutter obscenities when they passed the couple in the streets.
These incidents occurred even though Kwame did not look Bantu. He had a pointed nose, thin lips and an educated man’s demeanor and confidence. His movements possessed an athlete’s grace. His carriage suggested quiet, unassuming self-possession of a kind that few South African Bantu had achieved in a society that sought to destroy their self-respect. Kwame looked white men straight in the eye. He wore clothes reflecting educated taste, so apparently expensive that any Afrikaner rooinek could tell in a glance that he was American, that he belonged in South Africa by virtue of achievement.
“We are through with Africa!” Livie exclaimed to Jack and his third wife Amanda. “Kwame will teach again and I’m going to law school.” Kwame was not at all sure how her plan for them would work out. It envisioned him as a black man who would make a success of living in white culture. Was that such a bad fate: an attractive and affectionate woman, her supportive father, a tenure track position at an important American university, the respect of colleagues for his experiences overseas? He would have to play certain roles, but everyone had to do that. He would be a black white man only if he chose to regard himself as one. He would not fall into that trap; he’d be grateful for what had come his way.
When they were alone together in the Sutton Place apartment, Jack asked Kwame. “And you? Are you through with Africa?”
“I suppose I am,” Kwame said. “But Livie can be through with it in a way that I never can,” he observed. “Can I?” He smiled wryly, held out his hand and looked at the hue of its skin. “I have to deal with it at a different level than she does.”
“But not necessarily there.”
“No,” Kwame acknowledged. “Not there. I carry it with me.”
Later that summer Kwame and Livie spent two weeks together at a rented cottage on the north shore of Cape Cod. Kwame thought of it as the finale of their two happy years together, an ending because he was not ready – and probably never would be – to agree to his absorption into white life. After leaving her in New York, where she was looking into law school, he visited his parents in Springfield, Massachusetts. Then, while Livie thought him still in Springfield, he arranged with B.U. to extend his leave of absence. He flew to Washington and agreed to do another tour in Africa, assigned to the Congo.
At the end of their first week on the Cape, Kwame broke the news to Livie. He had signed on for another tour. Within ten days he would be in the Congo. He did not ask her to accompany him and she did not offer to go.
She did keep asking, “Why do you insist on this?” He shrugged. “Don’t keep shrugging,” she cried. “Your mother claims you’re a person of the mind, remember? Why do you have to do this?”
He said, “I guess there’s something in Africa–”
“That is such bullshit!” she shouted. “What about us?” Then she grumbled, “Fuck it! I swore I’d never say that to a man.”
On the second evening before he left they lay holding one another under a blanket, lying on a dune that sloped down to the water. A scattering of stars shone brilliantly above them. “The stars must be fantastic in the Congo,” Livie said. “Less pollution. Less ambient light. Shall I come watch them with you out in the middle of nowhere?”
After a moment she turned toward him. “We’ve been together all this time, Kwam. And yet–” She shrugged. “You’re going back to Africa to break this off, aren’t you?”
“No. But there’s something out there–”
”Like hell.” Then for a long time she said nothing. Finally she asked, “Do you love me?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Have you thought about marriage?”
“Fuckhead!” Neither spoke. “I hate it that you always make me bring this up,” she said. “Have you thought about us getting married?”
“I’d like that.” The words found their own way out of his mouth. He realized that once he left her, he would probably never see her again. Suddenly he did not want that to happen. Them married: he would like that. “But not if we eventually get divorced.”
“What about children?”
“Not if we get divorced.”
“You shit. Why do you keep saying that?”
“Your people divorce. Mine don’t.”
He held her close and looked up at the stars, wondering if a marriage between them would work. It would be wonderful for a few years. Could one ask for more than that of an American marriage these days? But the time would come – fifteen, maybe twenty years down the road – when there would be concerns about money: about salary, retirement and investment accumulation. He would come up short there; the women Livie had grown up with would have married entrepreneurs and international lawyers, arbitrageurs and investment bankers. Even if he did well as a cultural diplomat or in the academic world, he could not compete with them. Livie’s friends would be wealthy. She might inherit money, but never wealth. She might even make a good bit of money as an attorney. But they would always be behind. Kwame wondered how that would be.
And he understood her intention that he enter her world of privilege, her white world. Her friends would accept him in the protective coloration glow he had developed: always affable, no jarring opinions, Republican small talk. He would be one of those tiny drops of black in the can of white paint that Ralph Ellison had written about in Invisible Man; those few black drops made the white even whiter. But what about Livie’s moving into the black world from which he came? Could she do that? She had promised to meet his parents – his mother wanted very much to inspect her – but she was never quite able to make time for the trip. Would she accept him, but deny where he came from?
He held her and looked at the stars. “You’re going to marry some church-going black girl,” Livie said. “I know you will. And she’ll always feel good about herself because she beat out the white chick.”
“And you’re gonna marry some WASP with Mayflower ancestors and more money than I’ll ever see.”
While he was packing the evening before he left, he looked up and saw that she was watching him. “We’ve been together almost two years,” Livie stated. “Haven’t we?” Kwame nodded and went back to sticking socks into odd corners of his duffel. “And they’ve given us great times, haven’t they, those two years?” she said. He glanced up at her and smiled. “And we get on well.”
He zipped the duffel closed and set it on the floor. He wondered: What was he doing? The Congo seemed an enormous black hole. Already he was missing her.
He went to where she sat on the bed, her back against the headboard, a pillow in her lap. He took her hands and gazed at her.
“I love you,” she said. “If you love me, would you say it please?”
“I do love you. Kwame loves Livie.” She smiled. He asked, “What if we had Christmas together in Paris?” She grinned and leaned forward to kiss him. “You’ll have a break from law school and I’ll get leave.”
“We’ll find a little hotel that caters to lovers.”
They kissed. Kwame turned off the light and came back to the bed. Was he crazy to go to Africa, he wondered. If she found someone else to love, that WASP with the Mayflower heritage, would he ever forgive himself? They kissed again and looked at each other in the darkness. “What if we got married in Paris?” he asked.
She held him close. If they married, he wondered, what would happen to them? Would they be together? Would she abandon law school? Or would he leave Africa?
“We won’t tell anyone what we’re planning to do,” she said. “We’ll just do it, get married in Paris at Christmas.”
But when they made love that last night, they both wept as if they would never see each other again.