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I know why the caged bir.., p.11
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       I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.11

         Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
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Everyone attended the revival meetings. Members of the hoity-toity Mount Zion Baptist Church mingled with the intellectual members of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and the plain working people of the Christian Methodist Episcopal. These gatherings provided the one time in the year when all of those good village people associated with the followers of the Church of God in Christ. The latter were looked upon with some suspicion because they were so loud and raucous in their services. Their explanation that “the Good Book say, ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and be exceedingly glad’” did not in the least minimize the condescension of their fellow Christians. Their church was far from the others, but they could be heard on Sunday, a half mile away, singing and dancing until they sometimes fell down in a dead faint. Members of the other churches wondered if the Holy Rollers were going to heaven after all their shouting. The suggestion was that they were having their heaven right here on earth.

  This was their annual revival.

  Mrs. Duncan, a little woman with a bird face, started the service. “I know I’m a witness for my Lord … I know I’m a witness for my Lord, I know I’m a witness …”

  Her voice, a skinny finger, stabbed high up in the air and the church responded. From somewhere down front came the jangling sound of a tambourine. Two beats on “know,” two beats on “I’m a” and two beats on the end of “witness.”

  Other voices joined the near shriek of Mrs. Duncan. They crowded around and tenderized the tone. Handclaps snapped in the roof and solidified the beat. When the song reached its peak in sound and passion, a tall, thin man who had been kneeling behind the altar all the while stood up and sang with the audience for a few bars. He stretched out his long arms and grasped the platform. It took some time for the singers to come off their level of exaltation, but the minister stood resolute until the song unwound like a child’s playtoy and lay quieted in the aisles.

  “Amen.” He looked at the audience.

  “Yes, sir, amen.” Nearly everyone seconded him.

  “I say, Let the church say ‘Amen.’”

  Everyone said, “Amen.”

  “Thank the Lord. Thank the Lord.”

  “That’s right, thank the Lord. Yes, Lord. Amen.”

  “We will have prayer, led by Brother Bishop.”

  Another tall, brown-skinned man wearing square glasses walked up to the altar from the front row. The minister knelt at the right and Brother Bishop at the left.

  “Our Father”—he was singing—“You who took my feet out the mire and clay—”

  The church moaned, “Amen.”

  “You who saved my soul. One day. Look, sweet Jesus. Look down, on these your suffering children—”

  The church begged, “Look down, Lord.”

  “Build us up where we’re torn down … Bless the sick and the afflicted …”

  It was the usual prayer. Only his voice gave it something new. After every two words he gasped and dragged the air over his vocal chords, making a sound like an inverted grunt. “You who”—grunt—“saved my”—gasp—“soul one”—inhalation—“day”—humph.”

  Then the congregation, led again by Mrs. Duncan, flew into “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand.” It was sung at a faster clip than the usual one in the C.M.E. Church, but at that tempo it worked. There was a joy about the tune that changed the meaning of its sad lyrics. “When the darkness appears, and the night draweth near and my life is almost gone …” There seemed to be an abandon which suggested that with all those things it should be a time for great rejoicing.

  The serious shouters had already made themselves known, and their fans (cardboard advertisements from Texarkana’s largest Negro funeral home) and lacy white handkerchiefs waved high in the air. In their dark hands they looked like small kites without the wooden frames.

  The tall minister stood again at the altar. He waited for the song and the revelry to die.

  He said, “Amen. Glory.”

  The church skidded off the song slowly. “Amen. Glory.”

  He still waited, as the last notes remained in the air, staircased on top of each other. “At the river I stand—” “I stand, guide my feet—” “Guide my feet, take my hand.” Sung like the last circle in a round. Then quiet descended.

  The Scripture reading was from Matthew, twenty-fifth chapter, thirtieth verse through the forty-sixth.

  His text for the sermon was “The least of these.”

  After reading the verses to the accompaniment of a few Amens he said, “First Corinthians tells me, ‘Even if I have the tongue of men and of angels and have not charity, I am as nothing. Even if I give all my clothes to the poor and have not charity, I am as nothing. Even if I give my body to be burned and have not charity it availeth me nothing. Burned, I say, and have not charity, it availeth nothing.’ I have to ask myself, what is this thing called Charity? If good deeds are not charity—”

  The church gave in quickly. “That’s right, Lord.”

  “—if giving my flesh and blood is not charity?”

  “Yes, Lord.”

  “I have to ask myself what is this charity they talking so much about.”

  I had never heard a preacher jump into the muscle of his sermon so quickly. Already the humming pitch had risen in the church, and those who knew had popped their eyes in anticipation of the coming excitement. Momma sat tree-trunk still, but she had balled her handkerchief in her hand and only the corner, which I had embroidered, stuck out.

  “As I understand it, charity vaunteth not itself. Is not puffed up.” He blew himself up with a deep breath to give us the picture of what Charity was not. “Charity don’t go around saying ‘I give you food and I give you clothes and by rights you ought to thank me.’”

  The congregation knew whom he was talking about and voiced agreement with his analysis. “Tell the truth, Lord.”

  “Charity don’t say, ‘Because I give you a job, you got to bend your knee to me.’” The church was rocking with each phrase. “It don’t say, ‘Because I pays you what you due, you got to call me master.’ It don’t ask me to humble myself and belittle myself. That ain’t what Charity is.”

  Down front to the right, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, who only a few hours earlier had crumbled in our front yard, defeated by the cotton rows, now sat on the edges of their rickety-rackety chairs. Their faces shone with the delight of their souls. The mean whitefolks was going to get their comeuppance. Wasn’t that what the minister said, and wasn’t he quoting from the words of God Himself? They had been refreshed with the hope of revenge and the promise of justice.

  “Aaagh. Raagh. I said … Charity. Woooooo, a Charity. It don’t want nothing for itself. It don’t want to be bossman … Waah … It don’t want to be headman … Waah … It don’t want to be foreman … Waah … It … I’m talking about Charity … It don’t want … Oh Lord … help me tonight … It don’t want to be bowed to and scraped at …”

  America’s historic bowers and scrapers shifted easily and happily in the makeshift church. Reassured that although they might be the lowest of the low they were at least not uncharitable, and “in that great Gettin’ Up Morning, Jesus was going to separate the sheep (them) from the goats (the whitefolks).”

  “Charity is simple.” The church agreed, vocally.

  “Charity is poor.” That was us he was talking about.

  “Charity is plain.” I thought, that’s about right. Plain and simple.

  “Charity is … Oh, Oh, Oh. Cha-ri-ty. Where are you? Wooo … Charity … Hump.”

  One chair gave way and the sound of splintering wood split the air in the rear of the church.

  “I call you and you don’t answer. Woooh, oh Charity.”

  Another holler went up in front of me, and a large woman flopped over, her arms above her head like a candidate for baptism. The emotional release was contagious. Little screams burst around the room like Fourth of July firecrackers.

  The minister’s voice was a pendulum. Swinging
left and down and right and down and left and—“How can you claim to be my brother, and hate me? Is that Charity? How can you claim to be my sister and despise me? Is that supposed to be Charity? How can you claim to be my friend and misuse and wrongfully abuse me? Is that Charity? Oh, my children, I stopped by here—”

  The church swung on the end of his phrases. Punctuating. Confirming. “Stop by here, Lord.”

  “—to tell you, to open your heart and let Charity reign. Forgive your enemies for His sake. Show the Charity that Jesus was speaking of to this sick old world. It has need of the charitable giver.” His voice was falling and the explosions became fewer and quieter.

  “And now I repeat the words of the Apostle Paul, and ‘now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’”

  The congregation lowed with satisfaction. Even if they were society’s pariahs, they were going to be angels in a marble white heaven and sit on the right hand of Jesus, the Son of God. The Lord loved the poor and hated those cast high in the world. Hadn’t He Himself said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven? They were assured that they were going to be the only inhabitants of that land of milk and honey, except of course a few whitefolks like John Brown who history books said was crazy anyway. All the Negroes had to do generally, and those at the revival especially, was bear up under this life of toil and cares, because a blessed home awaited them in the far-off bye and bye.

  “Bye and bye, when the morning come, when all the saints of God’s are gathering home, we will tell the story of how we overcome and we’ll understand it better bye and bye.”

  A few people who had fainted were being revived on the side aisles when the evangelist opened the doors of the church. Over the sounds of “Thank you, Jesus,” he started a long-meter hymn:

  “I came to Jesus, as I was,

  worried, wounded and sad,

  I found in Him a resting place,

  And He has made me glad.”

  The old ladies took up the hymn and shared it in tight harmony. The humming crowd began to sound like tired bees, restless and anxious to get home.

  “All those under the sound of my voice who have no spiritual home, whose hearts are burdened and heavy-ladened, let them come. Come before it’s too late. I don’t ask you to join the Church of God in Christ. No. I’m a servant of God, and in this revival, we are out to bring straying souls to Him. So if you join this evening, just say which church you want to be affiliated with, and we will turn you over to a representative of that church body. Will one deacon of the following churches come forward?”

  That was revolutionary action. No one had ever heard of a minister taking in members for another church. It was our first look at Charity among preachers. Men from the A.M.E., A.M.E.Z., Baptist and C.M.E. churches went down front and assumed stances a few feet apart. Converted sinners flowed down the aisles to shake hands with the evangelist and stayed at his side or were directed to one of the men in line. Over twenty people were saved that night.

  There was nearly as much commotion over the saving of the sinners as there had been during the gratifying melodic sermon.

  The Mothers of the Church, old ladies with white lace disks pinned to their thinning hair, had a service all their own. They walked around the new converts singing,

  “Before this time another year,

  I may be gone,

  In some lonesome graveyard,

  Oh, Lord, how long?”

  When the collection was taken up and the last hymn given to the praise of God, the evangelist asked that everyone in his presence rededicate his soul to God and his life’s work to Charity. Then we were dismissed.

  Outside and on the way home, the people played in their magic, as children poke in mud pies, reluctant to tell themselves that the game was over.

  “The Lord touched him tonight, didn’t He?”

  “Surely did. Touched him with a mighty fire.”

  “Bless the Lord. I’m glad I’m saved.”

  “That’s the truth. It make a whole lot of difference.”

  “I wish them people I works for could of heard that sermon. They don’t know what they letting theyselves in for.”

  “Bible say, ‘He who can hear, let him hear. He who can’t, shame on ’em.’”

  They basked in the righteousness of the poor and the exclusiveness of the downtrodden. Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly—mostly—let them have their whiteness. It was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell. No one would have admitted that the Christian and charitable people were happy to think of their oppressors’ turning forever on the Devil’s spit over the flames of fire and brimstone.

  But that was what the Bible said and it didn’t make mistakes. “Ain’t it said somewhere in there that ‘before one word of this changes, heaven and earth shall fall away?’ Folks going to get what they deserved.”

  When the main crowd of worshipers reached the short bridge spanning the pond, the ragged sound of honky-tonk music assailed them. A barrelhouse blues was being shouted over the stamping of feet on a wooden floor. Miss Grace, the good-time woman, had her usual Saturday-night customers. The big white house blazed with lights and noise. The people inside had forsaken their own distress for a little while.

  Passing near the din, the godly people dropped their heads and conversation ceased. Reality began its tedious crawl back into their reasoning. After all, they were needy and hungry and despised and dispossessed, and sinners the world over were in the driver’s seat. How long, merciful Father? How long?

  A stranger to the music could not have made a distinction between the songs sung a few minutes before and those being danced to in the gay house by the railroad tracks. All asked the same questions. How long, oh God? How long?


  The last inch of space was filled, yet people continued to wedge themselves along the walls of the Store. Uncle Willie had turned the radio up to its last notch so that youngsters on the porch wouldn’t miss a word. Women sat on kitchen chairs, dining-room chairs, stools and upturned wooden boxes. Small children and babies perched on every lap available and men leaned on the shelves or on each other.

  The apprehensive mood was shot through with shafts of gaiety, as a black sky is streaked with lightning.

  “I ain’t worried ’bout this fight. Joe’s gonna whip that cracker like it’s open season.”

  “He gone whip him till that white boy call him Momma.”

  At last the talking was finished and the string-along songs about razor blades were over and the fight began.

  “A quick jab to the head.” In the Store the crowd grunted. “A left to the head and a right and another left.” One of the listeners cackled like a hen and was quieted.

  “They’re in a clench, Louis is trying to fight his way out.”

  Some bitter comedian on the porch said, “That white man don’t mind hugging that niggah now, I betcha.”

  “The referee is moving in to break them up, but Louis finally pushed the contender away and it’s an uppercut to the chin. The contender is hanging on, now he’s backing away. Louis catches him with a short left to the jaw.”

  A tide of murmuring assent poured out the doors and into the yard.

  “Another left and another left. Louis is saving that mighty right …” The mutter in the Store had grown into a baby roar and it was pierced by the clang of a bell and the announcer’s “That’s the bell for round three, ladies and gentlemen.”

  As I pushed my way into the Store I wondered if the announcer gave any thought to the fact that he was addressing as “ladies and gentlemen” all the Negroes around the world who sat sweating and praying, glued to their “master’s voice.”

  There were only a few calls for R. C. Colas, Dr. Peppers, and Hire’s root bee
r. The real festivities would begin after the fight. Then even the old Christian ladies who taught their children and tried themselves to practice turning the other cheek would buy soft drinks, and if the Brown Bomber’s victory was a particularly bloody one they would order peanut patties and Baby Ruths also.

  Bailey and I lay the coins on top of the cash register. Uncle Willie didn’t allow us to ring up sales during a fight. It was too noisy and might shake up the atmosphere. When the gong rang for the next round we pushed through the near-sacred quiet to the herd of children outside.

  “He’s got Louis against the ropes and now it’s a left to the body and a right to the ribs. Another right to the body, it looks like it was low … Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the referee is signaling but the contender keeps raining the blows on Louis. It’s another to the body, and it looks like Louis is going down.”

  My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.

  The men in the Store stood away from the walls and at attention. Women greedily clutched the babes on their laps while on the porch the shufflings and smiles, flirtings and pinching of a few minutes before were gone. This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes. True that we were stupid and ugly and lazy and dirty and, unlucky and worst of all, that God Himself hated us and ordained us to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, forever and ever, world without end.

  We didn’t breathe. We didn’t hope. We waited.

  “He’s off the ropes, ladies and gentlemen. He’s moving towards the center of the ring.” There was no time to be relieved. The worst might still happen.

  “And now it looks like Joe is mad. He’s caught Camera with a left hook to the head and a right to the head. It’s a left jab to the body and another left to the head. There’s a left cross and a right to the head. The contender’s right eye is bleeding and he can’t seem to keep his block up. Louis is penetrating every block. The referee is moving in, but Louis sends a left to the body and it’s the upper-cut to the chin and the contender is dropping. He’s on the canvas, ladies and gentlemen.”

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