Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

Three Days of the Lion: Escaping the Grasp of the CIA

Spring 1968 drew out violence like a poultice drawing out poison from a snakebite. Two months after King's assassination in Memphis, Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. And only a few weeks after King's death, Columbia University erupted in student protest. At the time of the Columbia University uprising, I was a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. While college recruiters came courting Stuyvesant's Black students that spring, so did Black students from Columbia. Sam Anderson and Ray Brown, two Black student leaders of the Columbia protest, talked to a group of us at Stuyvesant. next fall.

My father grew more concerned at my shift toward Black radical thought and action. He wanted to get me away from the tempting influences of New York City, so when I proposed that I travel to Africa that summer as a high school graduation present, he and my mother jumped in to contribute to the funds I'd already saved for the trip. My father, who worked for IBM, saw me off by saying, "There's an IBM office in Accra. If you get in trouble or need help, just go there. They'll get in touch with me. And you'll get all the help you need."

To shouts of Oságyefo, Oságyefo, Oságyefo (Redeemer, Redeemer, Redeemer), Kwame Nkrumah acceded to the presidency of Ghana in 1960 after leading the fight for independence from Britain. He advocated for Pan-Africanism. He established the Organization of African Unity. He invited W. E. B. DuBois to live in Ghana, where he ultimately died. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and even John F. Kennedy lauded Nkrumah. In the late 1960s, important figures in the Black freedom struggle, like Maya Angelou, called Ghana home. In 1966, with the assistance and training of the CIA, Nkrumah was ousted. Still, in those days of my youthful radicalism, Nkrumah stood as my hero, and Ghana as a country I too might someday call home.

I left for Ghana shortly after my graduation from Stuyvesant. Right from the beginning, many things went wrong. The Black tour group I traveled with had been promised a direct flight from Kennedy Airport to Dakar, Senegal, and then on to Accra, Ghana. Instead, the tour company bounced us around Europe for several days—Madrid, Lisbon, Zurich—before finally getting us to Ghana. I kissed the ground when I landed, thrilled to step foot on African soil. Then, after we cleared customs, Ghanaian authorities advised us to leave immediately. I was devastated. The tour company had made no arrangements for us in the country. If we chose to stay, we'd be on our own. Half the group turned around and left. I'd come too far to head home.

I stayed at the Star Hotel in Accra, the capital, while planning my travel and stays at universities throughout Ghana. Before leaving Accra, I stopped by the American embassy to alert them to my presence in the country. Unknown to me at the time, I'd arrived at the embassy in a lull between the appointments of ambassadors: Franklin Williams, who had been on duty during the ouster of Nkrumah, was on his way out, but Thomas W. McElhiney had not been sworn in. The ranking consulate general called me into his office and gave me a dressing down. This fellow told me in no uncertain terms to leave Ghana immediately.

If I did not, he said, "You'll be declared PNG [persona non grata], and the United States government will assume no responsibility for your health or welfare."

Even though I'd heard reports of Black Americans who'd gone missing in Ghana, I remained defiant. "I came here to visit the land where my ancestors were stolen as slaves," I shot back. "And I'll be damned if I let some White man tell me I have to leave Africa." I promptly walked out of the embassy.

At the time, all of Ghana had no more than two or three IBM computers, still the company had opened an office in Accra as early as 1960 to serve Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Each time I walked by the IBM offices in the capital, I took comfort that, should I need him, my father remained close by.

I received a Ghanaian name, Kojo Baako, in a traditional naming ceremony in the city of Kumasi. But I liked best visiting small villages and talking to local people. Everywhere I went, I found myself at pains to disavow the term many Ghanaians used to greet me: Oboruni, meaning "foreigner" but also "White man." After getting past this salutation, even the poorest villagers would gather around, many holding up embossed velvet images of the Kennedys and King. They peppered me with questions about how America could call itself a civilized nation when its greatest leaders faced assassination. In return, I spoke freely and openly about Black power, Malcolm X, and Kwame Nkrumah.

While traveling back to Accra from Kumasi, after nearly two months in Ghana, I encountered a young law student named Jimmy Adu, whom I'd met upon my arrival. Jimmy wasted no time laying out what I now faced.

"I would leave immediately," he said. "The authorities know about your travels. They know what you've been talking about. You've been marked for arrest and detention by the CID."

A holdover from British colonial rule, the CID (Criminal Investigations Department) is Ghana's equivalent of the FBI. They work in plain clothes, surveilling those considered enemies of the state. In the coup d'état that overthrew Nkrumah, the CID worked with the CIA. Some CID leaders came into power with Nkrumah's ouster. I may not have taken seriously what the consul general said, but I did not doubt a word of what I heard from Jimmy Adu. I remember walking down the red dirt road toward my hut in a village known then as Tetteh-Quarshie, and thinking, Oh, shit! I'm in trouble now. Then I burst into tears. I also remember the tug-of-war inside, mulling over whether I should run and seek refuge in the Ghanaian offices of IBM.

I got myself into this, I finally told myself. I will not seek my father's help to get out of this situation.

On the road to Tetteh-Quarshie, I wiped away my tears, composed myself, and thought, I see this all the time on television programs like Mission Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., where characters extract themselves from the most desperate situations. If they can do it on-screen, I can do it in real life. First, I need intelligence.

At sixteen, I decided to go up against the CID and possibly the CIA. I needed to assess my weakness, so I marched into the downtown office of Pan Am, whose return ticket I held, and simply asked to book the next flight back to the United States. As I entered the Pan Am office, I stopped to look at the IBM sign atop a building on the other side of the street. The Pan Am agent took my ticket, made a few calls, and promptly returned to tell me my ticket had been invalidated and he would be unable to arrange my flight. I snatched the ticket from his hand, racing from his office back to Tetteh-Quarshie.

One thing I'd learned from my time in Ghana was how loving, honest, and trustworthy local Ghanaians were. The other thing I'd learned is that you never let your ticket or your passport leave your side. I took them everywhere with me. I never thought once about leaving my hut door open or my belongings out, but even if I stepped away to walk the short distance to the pit toilet, I always carried my passport and my ticket with me.

When I left the pit toilet, after returning from the Pan Am office, I saw two men dressed in black suits running from my hut. My first thought was how strange to be wearing black suits in the heat and humidity of Africa. My second thought was, "Oh no!" When I stepped back into my hut, my belongings had been ransacked, and my wallet had been stolen. I was stranded in an African village, marked for apprehension.

Another thing I always carried with me, tucked into a back page of my passport, was the numbers of the American Express Travelers Cheques that I had purchased prior to leaving for Africa. Redeeming those cheques required another trip downtown, but all of my money had been stolen. Fortunately, American clothes were a tradable commodity in Ghana. So I simply paid a taxi driver with a pair of my blue jeans. He dropped me at the American Express office in Accra, farther down the main street from Pan Am and even closer to IBM. Once again, I felt the pull of simply giving in and seeking refuge in IBM. And once again, I couldn't bring myself to appeal for my father's help.

I stayed in the American Express office for hours until I finally got my cheques. I knew then that I had little time to execute a plan for my extraction. My intelligence turned up a time, on Saturdays only, when Pan Am's airport office was open but the main office downtown was closed. I believed my ticket was still valid and that I had been told otherwise only as a ruse to draw me in for apprehension by the CID.

So I concocted a plan: I would forge a letter from the State Department saying that, due to the dire security situation in the neighboring country of Nigeria (the Biafran War was underway), I needed to return at once to the United States. The only problem was finding both the stationery and a typewriter. The stationery proved easy. I decided on one of the Mailgrams, which I used to send letters back home. The typewriter was not. I had made friends with a professor at a nearby university, so I asked him if I could use his typewriter while he went to lunch. He agreed, and I forged and signed a letter from the US State Department to me.

Then I waited until Saturday and took the letter and my ticket to the Pan Am office at the airport, hoping that they had no record of my ticket's invalidation. I timed my arrival for the half-hour period when my intel showed they could not call the main office downtown for corroboration. I also practiced being a panicked, young American who needed to get back home, a role I found it easy to get into. I wound up nearly overplaying my hand. The agent at the airport office told me to calm down, that he'd get me out on a flight leaving that afternoon. He made the arrangements, issued me a boarding pass, and told me to be back a few hours before the flight left.

I worked hard to contain my excitement as I rushed from his office back to Tetteh-Quarshie to grab the belongings that had not been stolen, and then back to the airport for my flight home. I remember sitting at an outside table, drinking a beer with another Black American who'd been traveling in the country, while we watched our Pan Am flight scream overhead and then land. I remember also checking out of customs in Ghana and being told to stay within a cordoned-off area reserved for those booked on the flight about to leave. Elation filled me. I'd made it, and it was not even that hard.

Several buses pulled up to take passengers to the plane waiting on the tarmac. As we waited in line to board the buses, I met a Black professor named Anthony Kennedy, who'd been in Ghana doing research. Still nervous, I began recounting for him what I'd gone through in the last few days. But I'd barely finished when the Pan Am agent from downtown walked into the airport. I saw him before he saw me. I pointed at the man and said to Kennedy, "That's him."

"Go!" Kennedy said. "And don't stop until you're on that plane. I'll run interference." He pushed me in the direction of the tarmac, and I ran. The Pan Am agent saw me and took off in my direction. I looked back to see Kennedy step into this man's path as though by accident. The two collided, and Kennedy held on to him for a moment, buying me some time. I hopped on a bus already rolling toward the plane and pushed my way toward the front. The agent hopped on the back and fought his way toward me. I leaped off the bus before it came to a stop and raced up a forward staircase onto the plane.

At the top of the stairs, a flight attendant smiled at me and said pleasantly, "Is everything okay?"

My body shook. My voice trembled. "I just need to get to my seat."

She took my ticket and pointed toward the rear of the plane.

Meanwhile, the Pan Am agent watched from the tarmac as passengers came aboard. I fully expected that he'd try to drag me off the plane, but he never once walked up the steps. While I shook in my seat, Aretha sang, "I Feel Like a Natural Woman," over the plane's speakers. Through the small window, I saw the Pan Am agent standing on the tarmac, waving his clenched fist at me. 

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Sunday, 16 June 2024