I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.23Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
The miserable little encounter had nothing to do with me, the me of me, any more than it had to do with that silly clerk. The incident was a recurring dream, concocted years before by stupid whites and it eternally came back to haunt us all. The secretary and I were like Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene, where, because of harm done by one ancestor to another, we were bound to duel to the death. Also because the play must end somewhere.
I went further than forgiving the clerk, I accepted her as a fellow victim of the same puppeteer.
On the streetcar, I put my fare into the box and the conductorette looked at me with the usual hard eyes of white contempt. “Move into the car, please move on in the car.” She patted her money changer.
Her Southern nasal accent sliced my meditation and I looked deep into my thoughts. All lies, all comfortable lies. The receptionist was not innocent and neither was I. The whole charade we had played out in that crummy waiting room had directly to do with me, Black, and her, white.
I wouldn’t move into the streetcar but stood on the ledge over the conductor, glaring. My mind shouted so energetically that the announcement made my veins stand out, and my mouth tighten into a prune.
I WOULD HAVE THE JOB. I WOULD BE A CONDUCTORETTE AND SLING A FULL MONEY CHANGER FROM MY BELT. I WOULD.
The next three weeks were a honeycomb of determination with apertures for the days to go in and out. The Negro organizations to whom I appealed for support bounced me back and forth like a shuttlecock on a badminton court. Why did I insist on that particular job? Openings were going begging that paid nearly twice the money. The minor officials with whom I was able to win an audience thought me mad. Possibly I was.
Downtown San Francisco became alien and cold, and the streets I had loved in a personal familiarity were unknown lanes that twisted with malicious intent. Old buildings, whose gray rococo façades housed my memories of the Forty-Niners, and Diamond Lil, Robert Service, Sutter and Jack London, were then imposing structures viciously joined to keep me out. My trips to the streetcar office were of the frequency of a person on salary. The struggle expanded. I was no longer in conflict only with the Market Street Railway but with the marble lobby of the building which housed its offices, and elevators and their operators.
During this period of strain Mother and I began our first steps on the long path toward mutual adult admiration. She never asked for reports and I didn’t offer any details. But every morning she made breakfast, gave me carfare and lunch money, as if I were going to work. She comprehended the perversity of life, that in the struggle lies the joy. That I was no glory seeker was obvious to her, and that I had to exhaust every possibility before giving in was also clear.
On my way out of the house one morning she said, “Life is going to give you just what you put in it. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and pray, then you can wait.” Another time she reminded me that “God helps those who help themselves.” She had a store of aphorisms which she dished out as the occasion demanded. Strangely, as bored as I was with clichés, her inflection gave them something new, and set me thinking for a little while at least. Later when asked how I got my job, I was never able to say exactly. I only knew that one day, which was tiresomely like all the others before it, I sat in the Railway office, ostensibly waiting to be interviewed. The receptionist called me to her desk and shuffled a bundle of papers to me. They were job application forms. She said they had to be filled in triplicate. I had little time to wonder if I had won or not, for the standard questions reminded me of the necessity for dexterous lying. How old was I? List my previous jobs, starting from the last held and go backward to the first. How much money did I earn, and why did I leave the position? Give two references (not relatives).
Sitting at a side table my mind and I wove a cat’s ladder of near truths and total lies. I kept my face blank (an old art) and wrote quickly the fable of Marguerite Johnson, aged nineteen, former companion and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a White Lady) in Stamps, Arkansas.
I was given blood tests, aptitude tests, physical coordination tests, and Rorschachs, then on a blissful day I was hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars.
Mother gave me the money to have my blue serge suit tailored, and I learned to fill out work cards, operate the money changer and punch transfers. The time crowded together and at an End of Days I was swinging on the back of the rackety trolley, smiling sweetly and persuading my charges to “step forward in the car, please.”
For one whole semester the street cars and I shimmied up and scooted down the sheer hills of San Francisco. I lost some of my need for the Black ghetto’s shielding-sponge quality, as I clanged and cleared my way down Market Street, with its honky-tonk homes for homeless sailors, past the quiet retreat of Golden Gate Park and along closed undwelled-in-looking dwellings of the Sunset District.
My work shifts were split so haphazardly that it was easy to believe that my superiors had chosen them maliciously. Upon mentioning my suspicions to Mother, she said, “Don’t worry about it. You ask for what you want, and you pay for what you get. And I’m going to show you that it ain’t no trouble when you pack double.”
She stayed awake to drive me out to the car barn at four thirty in the mornings, or to pick me up when I was relieved just before dawn. Her awareness of life’s perils convinced her that while I would be safe on the public conveyances, she “wasn’t about to trust a taxi driver with her baby.”
When the spring classes began, I resumed my commitment with formal education. I was so much wiser and older, so much more independent, with a bank account and clothes that I had bought for myself, that I was sure that I had learned and earned the magic formula which would make me a part of the gay life my contemporaries led.
Not a bit of it. Within weeks, I realized that my schoolmates and I were on paths moving diametrically away from each other. They were concerned and excited over the approaching football games, but I had in my immediate past raced a car down a dark and foreign Mexican mountain. They concentrated great interest on who was worthy of being student body president, and when the metal bands would be removed from their teeth, while I remembered sleeping for a month in a wrecked automobile and conducting a streetcar in the uneven hours of the morning.
Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn’t know what I was aware of. I knew I knew very little, but I was certain that the things I had yet to learn wouldn’t be taught to me at George Washington High School.
I began to cut classes, to walk in Golden Gate Park or wander along the shiny counter of the Emporium Department Store. When Mother discovered that I was playing truant, she told me that if I didn’t want to go to school one day, if there were no tests being held, and if my school work was up to standard, all I had to do was tell her and I could stay home. She said that she didn’t want some white woman calling her up to tell her something about her child that she didn’t know. And she didn’t want to be put in the position of lying to a white woman because I wasn’t woman enough to speak up. That put an end to my truancy, but nothing appeared to lighten the long gloomy day that going to school became.
To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.
Until recently each generation found it more expedient to plead guilty to the charge of being young and ignorant, easier to take the punishment meted out by the older generation (which had itself confessed to the same crime short years before). The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth.
The bright hours when the young rebelled against the descending sun had to give way to twenty
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
The fact that the adult American Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance.
The Well of Loneliness was my introduction to lesbianism and what I thought of as pornography. For months the book was both a treat and a threat. It allowed me to see a little of the mysterious world of the pervert. It stimulated my libido and I told myself that it was educational because it informed me of the difficulties in the secret world of the pervert. I was certain that I didn’t know any perverts. Of course I ruled out the jolly sissies who sometimes stayed at our house and cooked whopping eight-course dinners while the perspiration made paths down their made-up faces. Since everyone accepted them, and more particularly since they accepted themselves, I knew that their laughter was real and that their lives were cheerful comedies, interrupted only by costume changes and freshening of make-up.
But true freaks, the “women lovers,” captured yet strained my imagination. They were, according to the book, disowned by their families, snubbed by their friends and ostracized from every society. This bitter punishment was inflicted upon them because of a physical condition over which they had no control.
After my third reading of The Well of Loneliness I became a bleeding heart for the downtrodden misunderstood lesbians. I thought “lesbian” was synonymous with hermaphrodite, and when I wasn’t actively aching over their pitiful state, I was wondering how they managed simpler body functions. Did they have a choice of organs to use, and if so, did they alternate or play favorite? Or I tried to imagine how two hermaphrodites made love, and the more I pondered the more confused I became. It seemed that having two of everything other people had, and four where ordinary people just had two, would complicate matters to the point of giving up the idea of making love at all.
It was during this reflective time that I noticed how heavy my own voice had become. It droned and drummed two or three whole tones lower than my schoolmates’ voices. My hands and feet were also far from being feminine and dainty. In front of the mirror I detachedly examined my body. For a sixteen-year-old my breasts were sadly undeveloped. They could only be called skin swellings, even by the kindest critic. The line from my rib cage to my knees fell straight without even a ridge to disturb its direction. Younger girls than I boasted of having to shave under their arms, but my armpits were as smooth as my face. There was also a mysterious growth developing on my body that defied explanation. It looked totally useless.
Then the question began to live under my blankets: How did lesbianism begin? What were the symptoms? The public library gave information on the finished lesbian—and that woefully sketchy—but on the growth of a lesbian, there was nothing. I did discover that the difference between hermaphrodites and lesbians was that hermaphrodites were “born that way.” It was impossible to determine whether lesbians budded gradually, or burst into being with a suddenness that dismayed them as much as it repelled society.
I had gnawed into the unsatisfying books and into my own unstocked mind without finding a morsel of peace or understanding. And meantime, my voice refused to stay up in the higher registers where I consciously pitched it, and I had to buy my shoes in the “old lady’s comfort” section of the shoe stores.
I asked Mother.
Daddy Clidell was at the club one evening, so I sat down on the side of Mother’s bed. As usual she woke completely and at once. (There is never any yawning or stretching with Vivian Baxter. She’s either awake or asleep.)
“Mother, I’ve got to talk to you …” It was going to kill me to have to ask her, for in the asking wouldn’t it be possible that suspicion would fall on my own normality? I knew her well enough to know that if I committed almost any crime and told her the truth about it she not only wouldn’t disown me but would give me her protection. But just suppose I was developing into a lesbian, how would she react? And then there was Bailey to worry about too.
“Ask me, and pass me a cigarette.” Her calmness didn’t fool me for a minute. She used to say that her secret to life was that she “hoped for the best, was prepared for the worst, so anything in between didn’t come as a surprise.” That was all well and good for most things but if her only daughter was developing into a …
She moved over and patted the bed, “Come on, baby, get in the bed. You’ll freeze before you get your question out.”
It was better to remain where I was for the time being.
“Mother … my pocketbook …”
“Ritie, do you mean your vagina? Don’t use those Southern terms. There’s nothing wrong with the word ‘Vagina.’ It’s a clinical description. Now, what’s wrong with it?”
The smoke collected under the bed lamp, then floated out to be free in the room. I was deathly sorry that I had begun to ask her anything.
“Well? … Well? Have you got crabs?”
Since I didn’t know what they were, that puzzled me. I thought I might have them and it wouldn’t go well for my side if I said I didn’t. On the other hand, I just might not have them, and suppose I lied and said I did?
“I don’t know, Mother.”
“Do you itch? Does your vagina itch?” She leaned on one elbow and jabbed out her cigarette.
“Then you don’t have crabs. If you had them, you’d tell the world.”
I wasn’t sorry or glad not to have them, but made a mental note to look up “crabs” in the library on my next trip.
She looked at me closely, and only a person who knew her face well could have perceived the muscles relaxing and interpreted this as an indication of concern.
“You don’t have a venereal disease, do you?”
The question wasn’t asked seriously, but knowing Mother I was shocked at the idea. “Why, Mother, of course not. That’s a terrible question.” I was ready to go back to my room and wrestle alone with my worries.
“Sit down, Ritie. Pass me another cigarette.” For a second it looked as if she was thinking about laughing. That would really do it. If she laughed, I’d never tell her anything else. Her laughter would make it easier to accept my social isolation and human freakishness. But she wasn’t even smiling. Just slowly pulling in the smoke and holding it in puffed cheeks before blowing it out.
“Mother, something is growing on my vagina.”
There, it was out. I’d soon know whether I was to be her ex-daughter or if she’d put me in hospital for an operation.
“Where on your vagina, Marguerite?”
Uh-huh. It was bad all right. Not “Ritie” or “Maya” or “Baby.” “Marguerite.”
“On both sides. Inside.” I couldn’t add that they were fleshy skin flaps that had been growing for months down there. She’d have to pull that out of me.
“Ritie, go get me that big Webster’s and then bring me a bottle of beer.”
Suddenly, it wasn’t all that serious. I was “Ritie” again, and she just asked for beer. If it had been as awful as I anticipated, she’d have ordered Scotch and water. I took her the huge dictionary that she had bought as a birthday gift for Daddy Clidell and laid it on the bed. The weight forced a side of the mattress down and Mother twisted her bed lamp to beam down on the book.
When I returned from the kitchen and poured her beer, as she had taught Bailey and me beer should be poured, she patted the bed.
“Sit down, baby. Read this.” Her fingers guided my eyes to VULVA. I began to read. She said, “Read it out loud.”
It was all very clear and normal-sounding. She drank the beer as I read, and when I had finished she explained it in every-day term
Mother shot up and put her arms around me.
“There’s nothing to worry about, baby. It happens to every woman. It’s just human nature.”
It was all right then to unburden my heavy, heavy heart. I cried into the crook of my arm. “I thought maybe I was turning into a lesbian.”
Her patting of my shoulder slowed to a still and she leaned away from me.
“A lesbian? Where the hell did you get that idea?”
“Those things growing on my … vagina, and my voice is too deep and my feet are big, and I have no hips or breasts or anything. And my legs are so skinny.”
Then she did laugh. I knew immediately that she wasn’t laughing at me. Or rather that she was laughing at me, but it was something about me that pleased her. The laugh choked a little on the smoke in its way, but finally broke through cleanly. I had to give a small laugh too, although I wasn’t tickled at all. But it’s mean to watch someone enjoy something and not show your understanding of their enjoyment.
When she finished with the laughter, she laid it down a peal at a time and turned to me, wiping her eyes.
“I made arrangements, a long time ago, to have a boy and a girl. Bailey is my boy and you are my girl. The Man upstairs, He don’t make mistakes. He gave you to me to be my girl and that’s just what you are. Now, go wash your face, have a glass of milk and go back to bed.”
I did as she said but I soon discovered my new assurance wasn’t large enough to fill the gap left by my old uneasiness. It rattled around in my mind like a dime in a tin cup. I hoarded it preciously, but less than two weeks later it became totally worthless.
A classmate of mine, whose mother had rooms for herself and her daughter in a ladies’ residence, had stayed out beyond closing time. She telephoned me to ask if she could sleep at my house. Mother gave her permission, providing my friend telephoned her mother from our house.
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