I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.17Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
On an afternoon a few weeks before Momma revealed her plan to take us West, Bailey came into the Store shaking. His little face was no longer black but a dirty, colorless gray. As was our habit upon entering the Store, he walked behind the candy counter and leaned on the cash register. Uncle Willie had sent him on an errand to whitefolks’ town and he wanted an explanation for Bailey’s tardiness. After a brief moment our uncle could see that something was wrong, and feeling unable to cope, he called Momma from the kitchen.
“What’s the matter, Bailey Junior?”
He said nothing. I knew when I saw him that it would be useless to ask anything while he was in that state. It meant that he had seen or heard of something so ugly or frightening that he was paralyzed as a result. He explained when we were smaller that when things were very bad his soul just crawled behind his heart and curled up and went to sleep. When it awoke, the fearful thing had gone away. Ever since we read The Fall of the House of Usher, we had made a pact that neither of us would allow the other to be buried without making “absolutely, positively sure” (his favorite phrase) that the person was dead. I also had to swear that when his soul was sleeping I would never try to wake it, for the shock might make it go to sleep forever. So I let him be, and after a while Momma had to let him alone too.
I waited on customers, and walked around him or leaned over him and, as I suspected, he didn’t respond. When the spell wore off he asked Uncle Willie what colored people had done to white people in the first place. Uncle Willie, who never was one for explaining things because he took after Momma, said little except that “colored people hadn’t even bothered a hair on whitefolks’ heads.” Momma added that some people said that whitefolks had come over to Africa (she made it sound like a hidden valley on the moon) and stole the colored people and made them slaves, but nobody really believed it was true. No way to explain what happened “blows and scores” ago, but right now they had the upper hand. Their time wasn’t long, though. Didn’t Moses lead the children of Israel out of the bloody hands of Pharaoh and into the Promised Land? Didn’t the Lord protect the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace and didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? We only had to wait on the Lord.
Bailey said he saw a man, a colored man, whom nobody had delivered. He was dead. (If the news hadn’t been so important, we would have been visited with one of Momma’s outbursts and prayers. Bailey was nearly blaspheming.) He said, “The man was dead and rotten. Not stinking but rotten.”
Momma ordered, “Ju, watch your tongue.”
Uncle Willie asked, “Who, who was it?”
Bailey was just tall enough to clear his face over the cash register. He said, “When I passed the calaboose, some men had just fished him out of the pond. He was wrapped in a sheet, all rolled up like a mummy, then a white man walked over and pulled the sheet off. The man was on his back but the white man stuck his foot under the sheet and rolled him over on the stomach.”
He turned to me. “My, he had no color at all. He was bloated like a ball.” (We had had a running argument for months. Bailey said there was no such thing as colorlessness, and I argued that if there was color there also had to be an opposite and now he was admitting that it was possible. But I didn’t feel good about my win.) “The colored men backed off and I did too, but the white man stood there, looking down, and grinned. Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?”
Uncle Willie muttered, “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared.”
Momma asked if Bailey had recognized the man, but he was caught in the happening and the event.
“Mr. Bubba told me I was too young to see something like that and I oughta hightail it home, but I had to stay. Then the white man called us closer. He said, ‘O.K., you boys, stretch him out in the calaboose and when the Sheriff comes along he’ll notify his people. This here’s one nigger nobody got to worry about no more. He ain’t going nowhere else.’ Then the men picked up corners of the sheet, but since nobody wanted to get close to the man they held the very ends and he nearly rolled out on the ground. The white man called me to come and help too.”
Momma exploded. “Who was it?” She made herself clear. “Who was the white man?”
Bailey couldn’t let go of the horror. “I picked up a side of the sheet and walked right in the calaboose with the men. I walked in the calaboose carrying a rotten dead Negro.” His voice was ancient with shock. He was literally bug-eyed.
“The white man played like he was going to lock us all up in there, but Mr. Bubba said ‘Ow, Mr. Jim. We didn’t do it. We ain’t done nothing wrong.’ Then the white man laughed and said we boys couldn’t take a joke, and opened the door.” He breathed his relief. “Whew, I was glad to get out of there. The calaboose, and the prisoners screaming they didn’t want no dead nigger in there with them. That he’d stink up the place. They called the white man ‘Boss.’ They said, ‘Boss, surely we ain’t done nothing bad enough for you to put another nigger in here with us, and a dead one at that.’ Then they laughed. They all laughed like there was something funny.”
Bailey was talking so fast he forgot to stutter, he forgot to scratch his head and clean his fingernails with his teeth. He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to unravel, start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death. The humorless puzzle of inequality and hate. His experience raised the question of worth and values, of aggressive inferiority and aggressive arrogance. Could Uncle Willie, a Black man, Southern, crippled moreover, hope to answer the questions, both asked and unuttered? Would Momma, who knew the ways of the whites and the wiles of the Blacks, try to answer her grandson, whose very life depended on his not truly understanding the enigma? Most assuredly not.
They both responded characteristically. Uncle Willie said something like he didn’t know what the world was coming to, and Momma prayed, “God rest his soul, poor man.” I’m sure she began piecing together the details of our California trip that night.
Our transportation was Momma’s major concern for some weeks. She had arranged with a railroad employee to provide her with a pass in exchange for groceries. The pass allowed a reduction in her fare only, and even that had to be approved, so we were made to abide in a kind of limbo until white people we would never see, in offices we would never visit, signed and stamped and mailed the pass back to Momma. My fare had to be paid in “ready cash.” That sudden drain on the nickel-plated cash register lopsided our financial stability. Momma decided Bailey couldn’t accompany us, since we had to use the pass during a set time, but that he would follow within a month or so when outstanding bills were paid. Although our mother now lived in San Francisco, Momma must have felt it wiser to go first to Los Angeles where our father was. She dictated letters to me, advising them both that we were on our way.
And we were on our way, but unable to say when. Our clothes were washed, ironed and packed, so for an immobile time we wore those things not good enough to glow under the California sun. Neighbors, who understood the complications of travel, said goodbye a million times.
“Well, if I don’t see you before your ticket comes through, Sister Henderson, have a good trip and hurry back home.” A widowed friend of Momma’s had agreed to look after (cook, wash, clean and provide company for) Uncle Willie, and after thousands of arrested departures, at last we left Stamps.
My sorrow at leaving was confined to a gloom at separating from Bailey for a month (we had never been parted), the imagined loneliness of Uncle Willie (he put on a good face, though at thirty-five he’d never been separated from his mother) and the loss of Louise, my first friend. I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.
The intensity with which young people live demands that they “blank out” as often as possible. I didn’t actually think about facing Mother until the last day of our journey. I was “going to California.” To orang
The agony of wonder made the fuzzy seats hard, soured the boiled eggs, and when I looked at Momma she seemed too big and too black and very old-fashioned. Everything I saw shuttered against me. The little towns, where nobody waved, and the other passengers in the train, with whom I had achieved an almost kinfolk relationship, disappeared into a common strangeness.
I was as unprepared to meet my mother as a sinner is reluctant to meet his Maker. And all too soon she stood before me, smaller than memory would have her but more glorious than any recall. She wore a light-tan suede suit, shoes to match and a mannish hat with a feather in the band, and she patted my face with gloved hands. Except for the lipsticked mouth, white teeth and shining black eyes, she might have just emerged from a dip in a beige bath. My picture of Mother and Momma embracing on the train platform has been darkly retained through the coating of the then embarrassment and the now maturity. Mother was a blithe chick nuzzling around the large, solid dark hen. The sounds they made had a rich inner harmony. Momma’s deep, slow voice lay under my mother’s rapid peeps and chirps like stones under rushing water.
The younger woman kissed and laughed and rushed about collecting our coats and getting our luggage carted off. She easily took care of the details that would have demanded half of a country person’s day. I was struck again by the wonder of her, and for the length of my trance, the greedy uneasinesses were held at bay.
We moved into an apartment, and I slept on a sofa that miraculously transformed itself at night into a large comfortable bed. Mother stayed in Los Angeles long enough to get us settled, then she returned to San Francisco to arrange living accommodations for her abruptly enlarged family.
Momma and Bailey (he joined us a month after our arrival) and I lived in Los Angeles about six months while our permanent living arrangements were being concluded. Daddy Bailey visited occasionally, bringing shopping bags of fruit. He shone like a Sun God, benignly warming and brightening his dark subjects.
Since I was enchanted with the creation of my own world, years had to pass before I reflected on Momma’s remarkable adjustment to that foreign life. An old Southern Negro woman who had lived her life under the left breast of her community learned to deal with white landlords, Mexican neighbors and Negro strangers. She shopped in supermarkets larger than the town she came from. She dealt with accents that must have struck jarringly on her ears. She, who had never been more than fifty miles from her birthplace, learned to traverse the maze of Spanish-named streets in that enigma that is Los Angeles.
She made the same kinds of friends she had always had. On late Sunday afternoons before evening church services, old women who were carbon copies of herself came to the apartment to share leftovers from the Sunday meal and religious talk of a Bright Hereafter.
When the arrangements for our move north were completed, she broke the shattering news that she was going back to Arkansas. She had done her job. She was needed by Uncle Willie. We had our own parents at last. At least we were in the same state.
There were foggy days of unknowing for Bailey and me. It was all well and good to say we would be with our parents, but after all, who were they? Would they be more severe with our didoes than she? That would be bad. Or more lax? Which would be even worse. Would we learn to speak that fast language? I doubted that, and I doubted even more that I would ever find out what they laughed about so loudly and so often.
I would have been willing to return to Stamps even without Bailey. But Momma left for Arkansas without me with her solid air packed around her like cotton.
Mother drove us toward San Francisco over the big white highway that would not have surprised me had it never ended. She talked incessantly and pointed out places of interest. As we passed Capistrano she sang a popular song that I’d heard on the radio: “When the swallows come back to Capistrano.”
She strung humorous stories along the road like a bright wash and tried to captivate us. But her being, and her being our mother, had done the job so successfully that it was a little distracting to see her throwing good energy after good.
The big car was obedient under her one-hand driving, and she pulled on her Lucky Strike so hard that her cheeks were sucked in to make valleys in her face. Nothing could have been more magical than to have found her at last, and have her solely to ourselves in the closed world of a moving car.
Although we were both enraptured, neither Bailey nor I was unaware of her nervousness. The knowledge that we had the power to upset that goddess made us look at each other conspiratorially and smile. It also made her human.
We spent a few dingy months in an Oakland apartment which had a bathtub in the kitchen and was near enough to the Southern Pacific Mole to shake at the arrival and departure of every train. In many ways it was St. Louis revisited—along with Uncles Tommy and Billy—and Grandmother Baxter of the pince-nez and strict carriage was again In Residence, though the mighty Baxter clan had fallen into hard times after the death of Grandfather Baxter some years earlier.
We went to school and no family member questioned the output or quality of our work. We went to a playground which sported a basketball court, a football field and Ping Pong tables under awnings. On Sundays instead of going to church we went to the movies.
I slept with Grandmother Baxter, who was afflicted with chronic bronchitis and smoked heavily. During the day she stubbed out half-finished cigarettes and put them in an ashtray beside her bed. At night when she woke up coughing she fumbled in the dark for a butt (she called them “Willies”) and after a blaze of light she smoked the strengthened tobacco until her irritated throat was deadened with nicotine. For the first weeks of sleeping with her, the shaking bed and scent of tobacco woke me, but I readily became used to it and slept peacefully through the night.
One evening after going to bed normally, I awoke to another kind of shaking. In the blunted light through the window shade I saw my mother kneeling by my bed. She brought her face close to my ear.
“Ritie,” she whispered, “Ritie. Come, but be very quiet.” Then she quietly rose and left the room. Dutifully and in a haze of ponderment I followed. Through the half-open kitchen door the light showed Bailey’s pajamaed legs dangling from the covered bathtub. The clock on the dining-room table said 2:30. I had never been up at that hour.
I looked Bailey a question and he returned a sheepish gaze. I knew immediately that there was nothing to fear. Then I ran my mind through the catalogue of important dates. It wasn’t anybody’s birthday, or April Fool’s Day, or Halloween, but it was something.
Mother closed the kitchen door and told me to sit beside Bailey. She put her hands on her hips and said we had been invited to a party.
Was that enough to wake us in the middle of the night! Neither of us said anything.
She continued, “I am giving a party and you are my honored and only guests.”
She opened the oven and took out a pan of her crispy brown biscuits and showed us a pot of milk chocolate on the back of the stove. There was nothing for it but to laugh at our beautiful and wild mother. When Bailey and I started laughing, she joined in, except that she kept her finger in front of her mouth to try to quiet us.
We were served formally, and she apologized for having no orchestra to play for us but said she’d sing as a substitute. She sang and did the Time Step and the Snake Hips and the Suzy Q. What child can resist a mother who laughs freely and often, especially if the child’s wit is mature enough to catch the sense of the joke?
Mother’s beauty made her powerful and her power made her unflinchingly honest. When we asked her what she did, what her job was, she walked us to Oakland’s Seventh Street, where dusty bars and smoke shops sat in the laps of storefro
In the street people were genuinely happy to see her. “Hey, baby. What’s the news?”
“Everything’s steady, baby, steady.”
“How you doing, pretty?”
“I can’t win, ’cause of the shape I’m in.” (Said with a laugh that belied the content.)
“You all right, momma?”
“Aw, they tell me the whitefolks still in the lead.” (Said as if that was not quite the whole truth.)
She supported us efficiently with humor and imagination. Occasionally we were taken to Chinese restaurants or Italian pizza parlors. We were introduced to Hungarian goulash and Irish stew. Through food we learned that there were other people in the world.
With all her jollity, Vivian Baxter had no mercy. There was a saying in Oakland at the time which, if she didn’t say it herself, explained her attitude. The saying was, “Sympathy is next to shit in the dictionary, and I can’t even read.” Her temper had not diminished with the passing of time, and when a passionate nature is not eased with moments of compassion, melodrama is likely to take the stage. In each outburst of anger my mother was fair. She had the impartiality of nature, with the same lack of indulgence or clemency.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes