I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.6Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
When we enrolled in Toussaint L’Ouverture Grammar School, we were struck by the ignorance of our schoolmates and the rudeness of our teachers. Only the vastness of the building impressed us; not even the white school in Stamps was as large.
The students, however, were shockingly backward. Bailey and I did arithmetic at a mature level because of our work in the Store, and we read well because in Stamps there wasn’t anything else to do. We were moved up a grade because our teachers thought that we country children would make our classmates feel inferior—and we did. Bailey would not refrain from remarking on our classmates’ lack of knowledge. At lunchtime in the large gray concrete playground, he would stand in the center of a crowd of big boys and ask, “Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?” “How many feet make a mile?” It was infighting, Bailey style.
Any of the boys might have been able to beat him with their fists, but if they did, they’d just have had to do it again the next day, and Bailey never held a brief for fighting fair. He taught me that once I got into a fight I should “grab for the balls right away.” He never answered when I asked, “Suppose I’m fighting a girl?”
We went to school there a full year, but all I remember hearing that I hadn’t heard before was, “Making thousands of egg-shaped oughts will improve penmanship.”
The teachers were more formal than those we knew in Stamps, and although they didn’t whip students with switches, they gave them licks in the palms of their hands with rulers. In Stamps teachers were much friendlier, but that was because they were imported from the Arkansas Negro colleges, and since we had no hotels or rooming houses in town, they had to live with private families. If a lady teacher took company, or didn’t receive any mail or cried alone in her room at night, by the weeks’ end even the children discussed her morality, her loneliness and her other failings generally. It would have been near impossible to maintain formality under a small town’s invasions of privacy.
St. Louis teachers, on the other hand, tended to act very siditty, and talked down to their students from the lofty heights of education and whitefolks’ enunciation. They, women as well as men, all sounded like my father with their ers and errers. They walked with their knees together and talked through tight lips as if they were as afraid to let the sound out as they were to inhale the dirty air that the listener gave off.
We walked to school around walls of bricks and breathed the coal dust for one discouraging winter. We learned to say “Yes” and “No” rather than “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am.”
Occasionally Mother, whom we seldom saw in the house, had us meet her at Louie’s. It was a long dark tavern at the end of the bridge near our school, and was owned by two Syrian brothers.
We used to come in the back door, and the sawdust, stale beer, steam and boiling meat made me feel as if I’d been eating mothballs. Mother had cut my hair in a bob like hers and straightened it, so my head felt skinned and the back of my neck so bare that I was ashamed to have anyone walk up behind me. Naturally, this kept me turning quickly as if I expected something to happen.
At Louie’s we were greeted by Mother’s friends as “Bibbie’s darling babies” and were given soft drinks and boiled shrimp. While we sat on the stiff wooden booths, Mother would dance alone in front of us to music from the Seeburg. I loved her most at those times. She was like a pretty kite that floated just above my head. If I liked, I could pull it in to me by saying I had to go to the toilet or by starting a fight with Bailey. I never did either, but the power made me tender to her.
The Syrian brothers vied for her attention as she sang the heavy blues that Bailey and I almost understood. They watched her, even when directing their conversation to other customers, and I knew they too were hypnotized by this beautiful lady who talked with her whole body and snapped her fingers louder than anyone in the whole world. We learned the Time Step at Louie’s. It is from this basic step that most American Black dances are born. It is a series of taps, jumps and rests, and demands careful listening, feeling and coordination. We were brought before Mother’s friends, there in the heavy saloon air, to show our artistry. Bailey learned easily, and has always been the better dancer. But I learned too. I approached the Time Step with the same determination to win that I had approached the time tables with. There was no Uncle Willie or sizzling pot-bellied stove, but there was Mother and her laughing friends, and they amounted to the same thing. We were applauded and given more soft drinks and, more shrimp, but it was to be years later before I found the joy and freedom of dancing well.
Mother’s brothers, Uncles Tutti, Tom and Ira, were well-known young men about St. Louis. They all had city jobs, which I now understand to have been no mean feat for Negro men. Their jobs and their family set them apart, but they were best known for their unrelenting meanness. Grandfather had told them, “Bah Jesus, if you ever get in jail for stealing or some such foolishness, I’ll let you rot. But if you’re arrested for fighting, I’ll sell the house, lock, stock, and barrel, to get you out!” With that kind of encouragement, backed by explosive tempers, it was no wonder they became fearsome characters. Our youngest uncle, Billy, was not old enough to join in their didoes. One of their more flamboyant escapades has become a proud family legend.
Pat Patterson, a big man, who was himself protected by the shield of a bad reputation, made the mistake of cursing my mother one night when she was out alone. She reported the incident to her brothers. They ordered one of their hangers-on to search the streets for Patterson, and when he was located, to telephone them.
As they waited throughout the afternoon, the living room filled with smoke and the murmurs of plans. From time to time, Grandfather came in from the kitchen and said, “Don’t kill him. Mind you, just don’t kill him,” then went back to his coffee with Grandmother.
They went to the saloon where Patterson sat drinking at a small table. Uncle Tommy stood by the door, Uncle Tutti stationed himself at the toilet door and Uncle Ira, who was the oldest and maybe everyone’s ideal, walked over to Patterson. They were all obviously carrying guns.
Uncle Ira said to my mother, “Here, Bibbi. Here’s this nigger Patterson. Come over here and beat his ass.”
She crashed the man’s head with a policemen’s billy enough to leave him just this side of death. There was no police investigation nor social reprobation.
After all, didn’t Grandfather champion their wild tempers, and wasn’t Grandmother a near-white woman with police pull?
I admit that I was thrilled by their meanness. They beat up whites and Blacks with the same abandon, and liked each other so much that they never needed to learn the art of making outside friends. My mother was the only warm, outgoing personality among her siblings. Grandfather became bedridden during our stay there, and his children spent their free time telling him jokes, gossiping with him and showing their love.
Uncle Tommy, who was gruff and chewed his words like Grandfather, was my favorite. He strung ordinary sentences together and they came out sounding either like the most profane curses or like comical poetry. A natural comedian, he never waited for the laugh that he knew must follow his droll statements. He was never cruel. He was mean.
When we played handball on the side of our house, Uncle Tommy would turn the corner, coming from work. He would pretend at first not to see us, but with the deftness of a cat he would catch the ball and say, “Put your minds where your behinds are, and I’ll let you on my team.” We children would range around him, but it was only when he reached the steps that he’d wind up his arm and throw the ball over the light post and toward the stars.
He told me often, “Ritie, don’t worry ’cause you ain’t pretty. Plenty pretty women I seen digging ditches or worse. You smart. I swear to God, I rather you have a good mind than a cute behind.”
They bragged often about the binding quality of the Baxter blood. Uncle Tommy said that even the children felt it before they were old enough to be taught. They reminisced over Bailey’s teaching me to walk when he was less than t
We lived in a big house on Caroline Street with our grandparents for half the year before Mother moved us in with her. Moving from the house where the family was centered meant absolutely nothing to me. It was simply a small pattern in the grand design of our lives. If other children didn’t move so much, it just went to show that our lives were fated to be different from everyone else’s in the world. The new house was no stranger than the other, except that we were with Mother.
Bailey persisted in calling her Mother Dear until the circumstance of proximity softened the phrase’s formality to “Muh Dear,” and finally to “M’Deah.” I could never put my finger on her realness. She was so pretty and so quick that even when she had just awakened, her eyes full of sleep and hair tousled, I thought she looked just like the Virgin Mary. But what mother and daughter understand each other, or even have the sympathy for each other’s lack of understanding?
Mother had prepared a place for us, and we went to it gratefully. We each had a room with a two-sheeted bed, plenty to eat and store-bought clothes to wear. And after all, she didn’t have to do it. If we got on her nerves or if we were disobedient, she could always send us back to Stamps. The weight of appreciation and the threat, which was never spoken, of a return to Momma were burdens that clogged my childish wits into impassivity. I was called Old Lady and chided for moving and talking like winter’s molasses.
Mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, lived with us, or we lived with him (I never quite knew which). He was a Southerner, too, and big. But a little flabby. His breasts used to embarrass me when he walked around in his undershirt. They lay on his chest like flat titties.
Even if Mother hadn’t been such a pretty woman, light-skinned with straight hair, he was lucky to get her, and he knew it. She was educated, from a well-known family, and after all, wasn’t she born in St. Louis? Then she was gay. She laughed all the time and made jokes. He was grateful. I think he must have been many years older than she, but if not, he still had the sluggish inferiority of old men married to younger women. He watched her every move and when she left the room, his eyes allowed her reluctantly to go.
I had decided that St. Louis was a foreign country. I would never get used to the scurrying sounds of flushing toilets, or the packaged foods, or doorbells or the noise of cars and trains and buses that crashed through the walls or slipped under the doors. In my mind I only stayed in St. Louis for a few weeks. As quickly as I understood that I had not reached my home, I sneaked away to Robin Hood’s forest and the caves of Alley Oop where all reality was unreal and even that changed every day. I carried the same shield that I had used in Stamps: “I didn’t come to stay.”
Mother was competent in providing for us. Even if that meant getting someone else to furnish the provisions. Although she was a nurse, she never worked at her profession while we were with her. Mr. Freeman brought in the necessities and she earned extra money cutting poker games in gambling parlors. The straight eight-to-five world simply didn’t have enough glamor for her, and it was twenty years later that I first saw her in a nurse’s uniform.
Mr. Freeman was a foreman in the Southern Pacific yards and came home late sometimes, after Mother had gone out. He took his dinner off the stove where she had carefully covered it and which she had admonished us not to bother. He ate quietly in the kitchen while Bailey and I read separately and greedily our own Street and Smith pulp magazine. Now that we had spending money, we bought the illustrated paperbacks with their gaudy pictures. When Mother was away, we were put on an honor system. We had to finish our homework, eat dinner and wash the dishes before we could read or listen to The Lone Ranger, Crime Busters or The Shadow.
Mr. Freeman moved gracefully, like a big brown bear, and seldom spoke to us. He simply waited for Mother and put his whole self into the waiting. He never read the paper or patted his foot to radio. He waited. That was all.
If she came home before we went to bed, we saw the man come alive. He would start out of the big chair, like a man coming out of sleep, smiling. I would remember then that a few seconds before, I had heard a car door slam; then Mother’s footsteps would signal from the concrete walk. When her key rattled the door, Mr. Freeman would have already asked his habitual question, “Hey, Bibbi, have a good time?”
His query would hang in the air while she sprang over to peck him on the lips. Then she turned to Bailey and me with the lipstick kisses. “Haven’t you finished your homework?” If we had and were just reading—“O.K., say your prayers and go to bed.” If we hadn’t—“Then go to your room and finish … then say your prayers and go to bed.”
Mr. Freeman’s smile never grew, it stayed at the same intensity. Sometimes Mother would go over and sit on his lap and the grin on his face looked as if it would stay there forever.
From our rooms we could hear the glasses clink and the radio turned up. I think she must have danced for him on the good nights, because he couldn’t dance, but before I fell asleep I often heard feet shuffling to dance rhythms.
I felt very sorry for Mr. Freeman. I felt as sorry for him as I had felt for a litter of helpless pigs born in our backyard sty in Arkansas. We fattened the pigs all year long for slaughter on the first good frost, and even as I suffered for the cute little wiggly things, I knew how much I was going to enjoy the fresh sausage and hog’s headcheese they could give me only with their deaths.
Because of the lurid tales we read and our vivid imaginations and, probably, memories of our brief but hectic lives, Bailey and I were afflicted—he physically and I mentally. He stuttered, and I sweated through horrifying nightmares. He was constantly told to slow down and start again, and on my particularly bad nights my mother would take me in to sleep with her, in the large bed with Mr. Freeman.
Because of a need for stability, children easily become creatures of habit. After the third time in Mother’s bed, I thought there was nothing strange about sleeping there.
One morning she got out of bed for an early errand, and I fell asleep again. But I awoke to a pressure, a strange feeling on my left leg. It was too soft to be a hand, and it wasn’t the touch of clothes. Whatever it was, I hadn’t encountered the sensation in all the years of sleeping with Momma. It didn’t move, and I was too startled to. I turned my head a little to the left to see if Mr. Freeman was awake and gone, but his eyes were open and both hands were above the cover. I knew, as if I had always known, it was his “thing” on my leg.
He said, “Just stay right here, Ritie, I ain’t gonna hurt you.” I wasn’t afraid, a little apprehensive, maybe, but not afraid. Of course I knew that lots of people did “it” and that they used their “things” to accomplish the deed, but no one I knew had ever done it to anybody. Mr. Freeman pulled me to him, and put his hand between my legs. He didn’t hurt, but Momma had drilled into my head: “Keep your legs closed, and don’t let nobody see your pocketbook.”
“Now, I didn’t hurt you. Don’t get scared.” He threw back the blankets and his “thing” stood up like a brown ear of corn. He took my hand and said, “Feel it.” It was mushy and squirmy like the inside of a freshly killed chicken. Then he dragged me on top of his chest with his left arm, and his right hand was moving so fast and his heart was beating so hard that I was afraid that he would die. Ghost stories revealed how people who died wouldn’t let go of whatever they were holding. I wondered if Mr. Freeman died holding me how I would ever get free. Would they have to break his arms to get me loose?
Finally he was quiet, and then came the nice part. He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn’t ever let me go. I felt at home
“I gotta talk to you, Ritie.” He pulled off his shorts that had fallen to his ankles, and went into the bathroom.
It was true the bed was wet, but I knew I hadn’t had an accident. Maybe Mr. Freeman had one while he was holding me. He came back with a glass of water and told me in a sour voice, “Get up. You peed in the bed.” He poured water on the wet spot, and it did look like my mattress on many mornings.
Having lived in Southern strictness, I knew when to keep quiet around adults, but I did want to ask him why he said I peed when I was sure he didn’t believe that. If he thought I was naughty, would that mean that he would never hold me again? Or admit that he was my father? I had made him ashamed of me.
“Ritie, you love Bailey?” He sat down on the bed and I came close, hoping. “Yes.” He was bending down, pulling on his socks, and his back was so large and friendly I wanted to rest my head on it.
“If you ever tell anybody what we did, I’ll have to kill Bailey.”
What had we done? We? Obviously he didn’t mean my peeing in the bed. I didn’t understand and didn’t dare ask him. It had something to do with his holding me. But there was no chance to ask Bailey either, because that would be telling what we had done. The thought that he might kill Bailey stunned me. After he left the room I thought about telling Mother that I hadn’t peed in the bed, but then if she asked me what happened I’d have to tell her about Mr. Freeman holding me, and that wouldn’t do.
It was the same old quandary. I had always lived it. There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn’t understand and who made no effort to understand mine. There was never any question of my disliking Mr. Freeman, I simply didn’t understand him either.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes