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I know why the caged bir.., p.3
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       I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.3

         Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
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Each night in the bitterest winter we were forced to wash faces, arms, necks, legs and feet before going to bed. She used to add, with a smirk that unprofane people can’t control when venturing into profanity, “and wash as far as possible, then wash possible.”

  We would go to the well and wash in the ice-cold, clear water, grease our legs with the equally cold stiff Vaseline, then tiptoe into the house. We wiped the dust from our toes and settled down for schoolwork, cornbread, clabbered milk, prayers and bed, always in that order. Momma was famous for pulling the quilts off after we had fallen asleep to examine our feet. If they weren’t clean enough for her, she took the switch (she kept one behind the bedroom door for emergencies) and woke up the offender with a few aptly placed burning reminders.

  The area around the well at night was dark and slick, and boys told about how snakes love water, so that anyone who had to draw water at night and then stand there alone and wash knew that moccasins and rattlers, puff adders and boa constrictors were winding their way to the well and would arrive just as the person washing got soap in her eyes. But Momma convinced us that not only was cleanliness next to Godliness, dirtiness was the inventor of misery.

  The impudent child was detested by God and a shame to its parents and could bring destruction to its house and line. All adults had to be addressed as Mister, Missus, Miss, Auntie, Cousin, Unk, Uncle, Buhbah, Sister, Brother and a thousand other appellations indicating familial relationship and the lowliness of the addressor.

  Everyone I knew respected these customary laws, except for the powhitetrash children.

  Some families of powhitetrash lived on Momma’s farm land behind the school. Sometimes a gaggle of them came to the Store, filling the whole room, chasing out the air and even changing the well-known scents. The children crawled over the shelves and into the potato and onion bins, twanging all the time in their sharp voices like cigar-box guitars. They took liberties in my Store that I would never dare. Since Momma told us that the less you say to whitefolks (or even powhitetrash) the better, Bailey and I would stand, solemn, quiet, in the displaced air. But if one of the playful apparitions got close to us, I pinched it. Partly out of angry frustration and partly because I didn’t believe in its flesh reality.

  They called my uncle by his first name and ordered him around the Store. He, to my crying shame, obeyed them in his limping dip-straight-dip fashion.

  My grandmother, too, followed their orders, except that she didn’t seem to be servile because she anticipated their needs.

  “Here’s sugar, Miz Potter, and here’s baking powder. You didn’t buy soda last month, you’ll probably be needing some.”

  Momma always directed her statements to the adults, but sometimes, Oh painful sometimes, the grimy, snotty-nosed girls would answer her.

  “Naw, Annie …”—to Momma? Who owned the land they lived on? Who forgot more than they would ever learn? If there was any justice in the world, God should strike them dumb at once!—“Just give us some extry sody crackers, and some more mackerel.”

  At least they never looked in her face, or I never caught them doing so. Nobody with a smidgen of training, not even the worst roustabout, would look right in a grown person’s face. It meant the person was trying to take the words out before they were formed. The dirty little children didn’t do that, but they threw their orders around the Store like lashes from a cat-o’-nine-tails.

  When I was around ten years old, those scruffy children caused me the most painful and confusing experience I had ever had with my grandmother.

  One summer morning, after I had swept the dirt yard of leaves, spearmint-gum wrappers and Vienna-sausage labels, I raked the yellow-red dirt, and made half-moons carefully, so that the design stood out clearly and mask-like. I put the rake behind the Store and came through the back of the house to find Grandmother on the front porch in her big, wide white apron. The apron was so stiff by virtue of the starch that it could have stood alone. Momma was admiring the yard, so I joined her. It truly looked like a flat redhead that had been raked with a big-toothed comb. Momma didn’t say anything but I knew she liked it. She looked over toward the school principal’s house and to the right at Mr. McElroy’s. She was hoping one of those community pillars would see the design before the day’s business wiped it out. Then she looked upward to the school. My head had swung with hers, so at just about the same time we saw a troop of the powhitetrash kids marching over the hill and down by the side of the school.

  I looked to Momma for direction. She did an excellent job of sagging from her waist down, but from the waist up she seemed to be pulling for the top of the oak tree across the road. Then she began to moan a hymn. Maybe not to moan, but the tune was so slow and the meter so strange that she could have been moaning. She didn’t look at me again. When the children reached halfway down the hill, halfway to the Store, she said without turning, “Sister, go on inside.”

  I wanted to beg her, “Momma, don’t wait for them. Come on inside with me. If they come in the Store, you go to the bedroom and let me wait on them. They only frighten me if you’re around. Alone I know how to handle them.” But of course I couldn’t say anything, so I went in and stood behind the screen door.

  Before the girls got to the porch I heard their laughter crackling and popping like pine logs in a cooking stove. I suppose my lifelong paranoia was born in those cold, molasses-slow minutes. They came finally to stand on the ground in front of Momma. At first they pretended seriousness. Then one of them wrapped her right arm in the crook of her left, pushed out her mouth and started to hum. I realized that she was aping my grandmother. Another said, “Naw, Helen, you ain’t standing like her. This here’s it.” Then she lifted her chest, folded her arms and mocked that strange carriage that was Annie Henderson. Another laughed, “Naw, you can’t do it. Your mouth ain’t pooched out enough. It’s like this.”

  I thought about the rifle behind the door, but I knew I’d never be able to hold it straight, and the .410, our sawed-off shotgun, which stayed loaded and was fired every New Year’s night, was locked in the trunk and Uncle Willie had the key on his chain. Through the fly-specked screen-door, I could see that the arms of Momma’s apron jiggled from the vibrations of her humming. But her knees seemed to have locked as if they would never bend again.

  She sang on. No louder than before, but no softer either. No slower or faster.

  The dirt of the girls’ cotton dresses continued on their legs, feet, arms and faces to make them all of a piece. Their greasy uncolored hair hung down, uncombed, with a grim finality. I knelt to see them better, to remember them for all time. The tears that had slipped down my dress left unsurprising dark spots, and made the front yard blurry and even more unreal. The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve.

  The girls had tired of mocking Momma and turned to other means of agitation. One crossed her eyes, stuck her thumbs in both sides of her mouth and said, “Look here, Annie.” Grandmother hummed on and the apron strings trembled. I wanted to throw a handful of black pepper in their faces, to throw lye on them, to scream that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods, but I knew I was as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside were confined to their roles.

  One of the smaller girls did a kind of puppet dance while her fellow clowns laughed at her. But the tall one, who was almost a woman, said something very quietly, which I couldn’t hear. They all moved backward from the porch, still watching Momma. For an awful second I thought they were going to throw a rock at Momma, who seemed (except for the apron strings) to have turned into stone herself. But the big girl turned her back, bent down and put her hands flat on the ground—she didn’t pick up anything. She simply shifted her weight and did a hand stand.

  Her dirty bare feet and long legs went straight for the sky. Her dress fell down around her shoulders, and she had on no drawers. The slick pubic hair made a brown triangle where her legs came together. She hung in the vacuum of that lifeless morning for only a few se
conds, then wavered and tumbled. The other girls clapped her on the back and slapped their hands.

  Momma changed her song to “Bread of Heaven, bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.”

  I found that I was praying too. How long could Momma hold out? What new indignity would they think of to subject her to? Would I be able to stay out of it? What would Momma really like me to do?

  Then they were moving out of the yard, on their way to town. They bobbed their heads and shook their slack behinds and turned, one at a time:

  “’Bye, Annie.”

  “’Bye, Annie.”

  “’Bye, Annie.”

  Momma never turned her head or unfolded her arms, but she stopped singing and said, “’Bye, Miz Helen, ’bye, Miz Ruth, ’bye, Miz Eloise.”

  I burst. A firecracker July-the-Fourth burst. How could Momma call them Miz? The mean nasty things. Why couldn’t she have come inside the sweet, cool store when we saw them breasting the hill? What did she prove? And then if they were dirty, mean and impudent, why did Momma have to call them Miz?

  She stood another whole song through and then opened the screen door to look down on me crying in rage. She looked until I looked up. Her face was a brown moon that shone on me. She was beautiful. Something had happened out there, which I couldn’t completely understand, but I could see that she was happy. Then she bent down and touched me as mothers of the church “lay hands on the sick and afflicted” and I quieted.

  “Go wash your face, Sister.” And she went behind the candy counter and hummed, “Glory, glory, hallelujah, when I lay my burden down.”

  I threw the well water on my face and used the weekday handkerchief to blow my nose. Whatever the contest had been out front, I knew Momma had won.

  I took the rake back to the front yard. The smudged footprints were easy to erase. I worked for a long time on my new design and laid the rake behind the wash pot. When I came back in the Store, I took Momma’s hand and we both walked outside to look at the pattern.

  It was a large heart with lots of hearts growing smaller inside, and piercing from the outside rim to the smallest heart was an arrow. Momma said, “Sister, that’s right pretty.” Then she turned back to the Store and resumed, “Glory, glory, hallelujah, when I lay my burden down.”


  Reverend Howard Thomas was the presiding elder over a district in Arkansas, that included Stamps. Every three months he visited our church, stayed at Momma’s over the Saturday night and preached a loud passionate sermon on Sunday. He collected the money that had been taken in over the preceding months, heard reports from all the church groups and shook hands with the adults and kissed all small children. Then he went away. (I used to think that he went west to heaven, but Momma straightened me out. He just went to Texarkana.)

  Bailey and I hated him unreservedly. He was ugly, fat, and he laughed like a hog with the colic. We were able to make each other burst with giggling when we did imitations of the thick-skinned preacher. Bailey was especially good at it. He could imitate Reverend Thomas right in front of Uncle Willie and never get caught because he did it soundlessly. He puffed out his cheeks until they looked like wet brown stones, and wobbled his head from side to side. Only he and I knew it, but that was old Reverend Thomas to a tee.

  His obesity, while disgusting, was not enough to incur the intense hate that we felt for him. The fact that he never bothered to remember our names was insulting, but neither was that slight, alone, enough to make us despise him. But the crime that tipped the scale and made our hate not only just but imperative was his actions at the dinner table. He ate the biggest, brownest and best parts of the chicken at every Sunday meal.

  The only good thing about his visits was the fact that he always arrived late on Saturday nights, after we had had dinner. I often wondered if he tried to catch us at the table. I believe so, for when he reached the front porch his little eyes would glitter toward the empty dining room and his face would fall with disappointment. Then immediately, a thin curtain would fall over his features and he’d laugh a few barks, “Uh, huh, uh, huh, Sister Henderson, just like a penny with a hole in it, I always turns up.”

  Right on cue every time, Momma would answer, “That’s right, Elder Thomas, thank the blessed Jesus, come right in.”

  He’d step in the front door and put down his Gladstone (that’s what he called it) and look around for Bailey and me. Then he opened his awful arms and groaned, “Suffer little children to come unto me, for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

  Bailey went to him each time with his hand stretched out, ready for a manly handshake, but Reverend Thomas would push away the hand and encircle my brother for a few seconds. “You still a boy, buddy. Remember that. They tell me the Good Book say, ‘When I was a child I spake as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’” Only then would he open his arms and release Bailey.

  I never had the nerve to go up to him. I was quite afraid that if I tried to say, “Hello, Reverend Thomas,” I would choke on the sin of mocking him. After all, the Bible did say, “God is not mocked,” and the man was God’s representative. He used to say to me, “Come on, little sister. Come and get this blessing.” But I was so afraid and I also hated him so much that my emotions mixed themselves up and it was enough to start me crying. Momma told him time after time, “Don’t pay her no mind, Elder Thomas, you know how tender-hearted she is.”

  He ate the leftovers from our dinner and he and Uncle Willie discussed the developments of the church programs. They talked about how the present minister was attending to his flock, who got married, who died and how many children had been born since his last visit.

  Bailey and I stood like shadows in the rear of the Store near the coal-oil tank, waiting for the juicy parts. But when they were ready to talk about the latest scandal, Momma sent us to her bedroom with warnings to have our Sunday School lesson perfectly memorized or we knew what we could expect.

  We had a system that never failed. I would sit in the big rocking chair by the stove and rock occasionally and stamp my feet. I changed voices, now soft and girlish, then a little deeper like Bailey’s. Meanwhile, he would creep back into the Store. Many times he came flying back to sit on the bed and to hold the open lesson book just before Momma suddenly filled the doorway.

  “You children get your lesson good, now. You know all the other children looks up to you all.” Then, as she turned back into the Store Bailey followed right on her footsteps to crouch in the shadows and listen for the forbidden gossip.

  Once, he heard how Mr. Coley Washington had a girl from Lewisville staying in his house. I didn’t think that was so bad, but Bailey explained that Mr. Washington was probably “doing it” to her. He said that although “it” was bad just about everybody in the world did it to somebody, but no one else was supposed to know that. And once, we found out about a man who had been killed by whitefolks and thrown into the pond. Bailey said the man’s things had been cut off and put in his pocket and he had been shot in the head, all because the whitefolks said he did “it” to a white woman.

  Because of the kinds of news we filched from those hushed conversations, I was convinced that whenever Reverend Thomas came and Momma sent us to the back room they were going to discuss whitefolks and “doing it.” Two subjects about which I was very dim.

  On Sunday mornings Momma served a breakfast that was geared to hold us quiet from 9:30 A.M. to 3 P.M. She fried thick pink slabs of home-cured ham and poured the grease over sliced red tomatoes. Eggs over easy, fried potatoes and onions, yellow hominy and crisp perch fried so hard we would pop them in our mouths and chew bones, fins and all. Her cathead biscuits were at least three inches in diameter and two inches thick. The trick to eating catheads was to get the butter on them before they got cold—then they were delicious. When, unluckily, they were allowed to get cold, they tended to a gooeyness, not unlike a wad of tired gum.

  We were able to reaffirm our findings on the catheads each Sun
day that Reverend Thomas spent with us. Naturally enough, he was asked to bless the table. We would all stand; my uncle, leaning his walking stick against the wall, would lean his weight on the table. Then Reverend Thomas would begin. “Blessed Father, we thank you this morning …” and on and on and on. I’d stop listening after a while until Bailey kicked me and then I cracked my lids to see what had promised to be a meal that would make any Sunday proud. But as the Reverend droned on and on and on to a God who I thought must be bored to hear the same things over and over again, I saw that the ham grease had turned white on the tomatoes. The eggs had withdrawn from the edge of the platter to bunch in the center like children left out in the cold. And the catheads had sat down on themselves with the conclusiveness of a fat woman sitting in an easy chair. And still he talked on. When he finally stopped, our appetites were gone, but he feasted on the cold food with a non-talking but still noisy relish.

  In the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church the children’s section was on the right, cater-cornered from the pew that held those ominous women called the Mothers of the Church. In the young people’s section the benches were placed close together, and when a child’s legs no longer comfortably fitted in the narrow space, it was an indication to the elders that that person could now move into the intermediate area (center church). Bailey and I were allowed to sit with the other children only when there were informal meetings, church socials or the like. But on the Sundays when Reverend Thomas preached, it was ordained that we occupy the first row, called the mourners’ bench. I thought we were placed in front because Momma was proud of us, but Bailey assured me that she just wanted to keep her grandchildren under her thumb and eye.

  Reverend Thomas took his text from Deuteronomy. And I was stretched between loathing his voice and wanting to listen to the sermon. Deuteronomy was my favorite book in the Bible. The laws were so absolute, so clearly set down, that I knew if a person truly wanted to avoid hell and brimstone, and being roasted forever in the devil’s fire, all she had to do was memorize Deuteronomy and follow its teaching, word for word. I also liked the way the word rolled off the tongue.

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