I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.19Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
No recriminations lay hidden under the plain statement, nor was there boasting when he said, “If I’m living a little better now, it’s because I treats everybody right.”
He owned apartment buildings and, later, pool halls, and was famous for being that rarity “a man of honor.” He didn’t suffer, as many “honest men” do, from the detestable righteousness that diminishes their virtue. He knew cards and men’s hearts. So during the age when Mother was exposing us to certain facts of life, like personal hygiene, proper posture, table manners, good restaurants and tipping practices, Daddy Clidell taught me to play poker, blackjack, tonk and high, low, Jick, Jack and the Game. He wore expensively tailored suits and a large yellow diamond stickpin. Except for the jewelry, he was a conservative dresser and carried himself with the unconscious pomp of a man of secure means. Unexpectedly, I resembled him, and when he, Mother and I walked down the street his friends often said, “Clidell, that’s sure your daughter. Ain’t no way you can deny her.”
Proud laughter followed those declarations, for he had never had children. Because of his late-arriving but intense paternal sense, I was introduced to the most colorful characters in the Black underground. One afternoon, I was invited into our smoke-filled dining room to make the acquaintance of Stonewall Jimmy, Just Black, Cool Clyde, Tight Coat and Red Leg. Daddy Clidell explained to me that they were the most successful con men in the world, and they were going to tell me about some games so that I would never be “anybody’s mark.”
To begin, one man warned me, “There ain’t never been a mark yet that didn’t want something for nothing.” Then they took turns showing me their tricks, how they chose their victims (marks) from the wealthy bigoted whites and in every case how they used the victims’ prejudice against them.
Some of the tales were funny, a few were pathetic, but all were amusing or gratifying to me, for the Black man, the con man who could act the most stupid, won out every time over the powerful, arrogant white.
I remember Mr. Red Leg’s story like a favorite melody.
“Anything that works against you can also work for you once you understand the Principle of Reverse.
“There was a cracker in Tulsa who bilked so many Negroes he could set up a Negro Bilking Company. Naturally he got to thinking, Black Skin means Damn Fool. Just Black and I went to Tulsa to check him out. Come to find out, he’s a perfect mark. His momma must have been scared in an Indian massacre in Africa. He hated Negroes only a little more than he despised Indians. And he was greedy.
“Black and I studied him and decided he was worth setting up against the store. That means we were ready to put out a few thousand dollars in preparation. We pulled in a white boy from New York, a good con artist, and had him open an office in Tulsa. He was supposed to be a Northern real estate agent trying to buy up valuable land in Oklahoma. We investigated a piece of land near Tulsa that had a toll bridge crossing it. It used to be part of an Indian reservation but had been taken over by the state.
“Just Black was laid out as the decoy, and I was going to be the fool. After our friend from New York hired a secretary and had his cards printed, Black approached the mark with a proposition. He told him that he had heard that our mark was the only white man colored people could trust. He named some of the poor fools that had been taken by that crook. It just goes to show you how white folks can be deceived by their own deception. The mark believed Black.
“Black told him about his friend who was half Indian and half colored and how some Northern white estate agent had found out that he was the sole owner of a piece of valuable land and the Northerner wanted to buy it. At first the man acted like he smelled a rat, but from the way he gobbled up the proposition, turns out what he thought he smelled was some nigger money on his top lip.
“He asked the whereabouts of the land but Black put him off. He told his cracker that he just wanted to make sure that he would be interested. The mark allowed how he was being interested, so Black said he would tell his friend and they’d get in touch with him. Black met the mark for about three weeks in cars and in alleys and kept putting him off until the white man was almost crazy with anxiety and greed and then accidentally it seemed Black let drop the name of the Northern real estate agent who wanted the property. From that moment on we knew we had the big fish on the line and all we had to do was to pull him in.
“We expected him to try to contact our store, which he did. That cracker went to our setup and counted on his whiteness to ally him with Spots, our white boy, but Spots refused to talk about the deal except to say the land had been thoroughly investigated by the biggest real estate concern in the South and that if our mark did not go around raising dust he would make sure that there would be a nice piece of money in it for him. Any obvious inquiries as to the rightful ownership of the land could alert the state and they would surely push through a law prohibiting the sale. Spots told the mark he would keep in touch with him. The mark went back to the store three or four times but to no avail, then just before we knew he would crack, Black brought me to see him. That fool was as happy as a sissy in a C.C.C. camp. You would have thought my neck was in a noose and he was about to light the fire under my feet. I never enjoyed taking anybody so much.
“Anyhow, I played scary at first but Just Black told me that this was one white man that our people could trust. I said I did not trust no white man because all they wanted was to get a chance to kill a Black man legally and get his wife in the bed. (I’m sorry, Clidell.) The mark assured me that he was the only white man who did not feel like that. Some of his best friends were colored people. In fact, if I didn’t know it, the woman who raised him was a colored woman and he still sees her to this day. I let myself be convinced and then the mark began to drag the Northern whites. He told me that they made Negroes sleep in the street in the North and that they had to clean out toilets with their hands in the North and even things worse than that. I was shocked and said, ‘Then I don’t want to sell my land to that white man who offered seventy-five thousand dollars for it.’ Just Black said, ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of money,’ and I said that all I wanted was to have enough money to buy a home for my old mom, to buy a business and to make one trip to Harlem. The mark asked how much would that cost and I said I reckoned I could do it on fifty thousand dollars.
“The mark told me no Negro was safe with that kind of money. That white folks would take it from him. I said I knew it but I had to have at least forty thousand dollars. He agreed. We shook hands. I said it would do my heart good to see the mean Yankee go down on some of ‘our land.’ We met the next morning and I signed the deed in his car and he gave me the cash.
“Black and I had kept most of our things in a hotel over in Hot Springs, Arkansas. When the deal was closed we walked to our car, drove across the state line and on to Hot Springs.
“That’s all there was to it.”
When he finished, more triumphant stories rainbowed around the room riding the shoulders of laughter. By all accounts those storytellers, born Black and male before the turn of the twentieth century, should have been ground into useless dust. Instead they used their intelligence to pry open the door of rejection and not only became wealthy but got some revenge in the bargain.
It wasn’t possible for me to regard them as criminals or be anything but proud of their achievements.
The needs of a society determine its ethics, and in the Black American ghettos the hero is that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country’s table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast. Hence the janitor who lives in one room but sports a robin’s-egg-blue Cadillac is not laughed at but admired, and the domestic who buys forty-dollar shoes is not criticized but is appreciated. We know that they have put to use their full mental and physical powers. Each single gain feeds into the gains of the body collective.
Stories of law violations are weighed on a different set of scales in the Black mind than in the white. Petty crimes
My education and that of my Black associates were quite different from the education of our white schoolmates. In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with “That’s not unusual.” But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, “It be’s like that sometimes.”
Just like Jane Withers and Donald O’Connor I was going on a vacation. Daddy Bailey invited me to spend the summer with him in southern California and I was jumpy with excitement. Given our father’s characteristic air of superiority, I secretly expected him to live in a manor house surrounded by grounds and serviced by a liveried staff.
Mother was all cooperation in helping me to shop for summer clothes. With the haughtiness San Franciscans have for people who live in the warmer climate, she explained that all I needed were lots of shorts, pedal pushers, sandals and blouses because “southern Californians hardly ever wear anything else.”
Daddy Bailey had a girl friend, who had begun corresponding with me some months before, and she was to meet me at the train. We had agreed to wear white carnations to identify each other, and the porter kept my flower in the diner’s Frigidaire until we reached the small hot town.
On the platform my eyes skimmed over the whites and searched among the Negroes who were walking up and down expectantly. There were no men as tall as Daddy, and no really glamorous ladies (I had decided that given his first choice, all his succeeding women would be startlingly beautiful). I saw a little girl who wore a white flower, but dismissed her as improbable. The platform emptied as we walked by each other time after time. Finally she stopped me with a disbelieving “Marguerite?” Her voice screeched with shock and maturity. So, after all, she wasn’t a little girl. I too, was visited with unbelief.
She said, “I’m Dolores Stockland.”
Stunned but trying to be well mannered, I said, “Hello. My name is Marguerite.”
Daddy’s girl friend? I guessed her to be in her early twenties. Her crisp seersucker suit, spectator pumps and gloves informed me that she was proper and serious. She was of average height but with the unformed body of a girl and I thought that if she was planning to marry our father she must have been horrified to find herself with a nearly six-foot prospective stepdaughter who was not even pretty. (I found later that Daddy Bailey had told her that his children were eight and nine years old and cute as buttons. She had such a need to believe in him that even though we corresponded at a time when I loved the multi-syllabic words and convoluted sentences she had been able to ignore the obvious.)
I was another link in a long chain of disappointments. Daddy had promised to marry her but kept delaying until he finally married a woman named Alberta, who was another small tight woman from the South. When I met Dolores she had all the poses of the Black bourgeoisie without the material basis to support the postures. Instead of owning a manor house and servants, Daddy lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of a town that was itself the outskirts of town. Dolores lived there with him and kept the house clean with the orderliness of a coffin. Artificial flowers reposed waxily in glass vases. She was on close terms with her washing machine and ironing board. Her hairdresser could count on absolute fidelity and punctuality. In a word, but for intrusions her life would have been perfect. And then I came along.
She tried hard to make me into something she could reasonably accept. Her first attempt, which failed utterly, concerned my attention to details. I was asked, cajoled, then ordered to care for my room. My willingness to do so was hampered by an abounding ignorance of how it should be done and a fumbling awkwardness with small objects. The dresser in my room was covered with little porcelain white women holding parasols, china dogs, fat-bellied cupids and blown-glass animals of every persuasion. After making the bed, sweeping my room and hanging up the clothes, if and when I remembered to dust the bric-a-brac, I unfailingly held one too tightly and crunched off a leg or two, or too loosely and dropped it, to shatter it into miserable pieces.
Daddy wore his amused impenetrable face constantly. He seemed positively diabolic in his enjoyment of our discomfort. Certainly Dolores adored her outsize lover, and his elocution (Daddy Bailey never spoke, he orated), spiced with the rolling ers and errers, must have been some consolation to her in their less-than-middle-class home. He worked in the kitchen of a naval hospital and they both said he was a medical dietician for the United States Navy. Their Frigidaire was always stocked with newly acquired pieces of ham, half roasts and quartered chickens. Dad was an excellent cook. He had been in France during World War I and had also worked as doorman at the exclusive Breakers’ Hotel; as a result he often made Continental dinners. We sat down frequently to coq au vin, prime ribs au jus, and cotelette Milanese with all the trimmings. His speciality, however, was Mexican food. He traveled across the border weekly to pick up condiments and other supplies that graced our table as pollo en salsa verde and enchilada con carne.
If Dolores had been a little less aloof, a little more earthy, she could have discovered that those ingredients were rife in her town proper, and Dad had no need to travel to Mexico to buy provisions. But she would not be caught so much as looking into one of the crusty Mexican mercados, let alone venturing inside its smelliness. And it also sounded ritzy to say, “My husband, Mr. Johnson, the naval dietician, went over to Mexico to buy some things for our dinner.” That goes over large with other ritzy people who go to the white area to buy artichokes.
Dad spoke fluent Spanish, and since I had studied for a year we were able to converse slightly. I believe that my talent with a foreign language was the only quality I had that impressed Dolores. Her mouth was too taut and her tongue too still to attempt the strange sounds. Admittedly, though, her English, like everything else about her, was absolutely perfect.
We indulged in a test of strength for weeks as Dad stood figuratively on the sidelines, neither cheering nor booing but enjoying himself greatly. He asked me once if I “er liked errer my mother.” I thought he meant my mother, so I answered yes—she was beautiful and gay and very kind. He said he wasn’t talking about Vivian, he meant Dolores. Then I explained that I didn’t like her because she was mean and petty and full of pretense. He laughed, and when I added she didn’t like me because I was so tall and arrogant and wasn’t clean enough for her, he laughed harder and said something like “Well, that’s life.”
One evening he announced that on the next day he was going to Mexico to buy food for the weekend. There was nothing unusual about his pronouncement until he added that he was taking me along. He filled the shocked silence with the information that a trip to Mexico would give me an opportunity to practice Spanish.
Dolores’ silence might have been brought on by a jealous reaction, but mine was occasioned by pure surprise. My father had not shown any particular pride in me and very little affection. He had not taken me to his friends or to southern California’s few points of interest. It was incredible that I was to be included in something as exotic as a trip to Mexico. Well, I quickly reasoned, I deserved it. After all, I was his daughter and my vacation fell far short of what I had expected a vacation to be. Had I protested that I would like Dolores to go along, we might have been spared a display of violence and near tragedy. But my young mind was filled with self, and my imagination shivered at the prospect of seeing sombreros, rancheros, tortillas and Pancho Villa. We spent a q
In the morning, we set out on the foreign adventure. The dirt roads of Mexico fulfilled all my longing for the unusual. Only a few miles from California’s slick highways and, to me, tall buildings, we were bumping along on gravel streets that could have competed in crudeness with the worst paths in Arkansas, and the landscape boasted adobe huts or cabins walled with corrugated metal. Dogs, lean and dirty, slunk around the houses, and children played innocently in the nude or near nude with discarded rubber tires. Half the population looked like Tyrone Power and Dolores Del Rio, and the other half like Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou, maybe only fatter and older.
Dad gave no explanation as we drove through the border town and headed for the interior. Although surprised, I refused to indulge my curiosity by questioning him. After a few miles we were stopped by a uniformed guard. He and Dad exchanged familiar greetings and Dad got out of the car. He reached back into the pocket of the door and took a bottle of liquor into the guard’s kiosk. They laughed and talked for over a half hour as I sat in the car and tried to translate the muffled sounds. Eventually they came out and walked to the car. Dad still had the bottle but it was only half full. He asked the guard if he would like to marry me. Their Spanish was choppier than my school version but I understood. My father added as an inducement the fact that I was only fifteen years old. At once the guard leaned into the car and caressed my cheek. I supposed that he thought before that I was not only ugly but old, too, and that now the knowledge that I was probably unused attracted him. He told Dad that he would marry me and we would have “many babies.” My father found that promise the funniest thing he had heard since we left home. (He had laughed uproariously when Dolores didn’t answer my goodbye and I explained as we drove away that she hadn’t heard.) The guard was not discouraged by my attempts to get away from his probing hands and I would have squirmed to the driver’s seat had not Dad opened the door and got in. After many adiós’s and bonitas and espositas Dad started the car, and we were on our grimy way again.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes