I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.8Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
Even Bailey was frightened. He sat all to himself, looking at a man’s death—a kitten looking at a wolf. Not quite understanding it but frightened all the same.
In those moments I decided that although Bailey loved me he couldn’t help. I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow, I knew that because I loved him so much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like the black fat slugs that only pretended.
I had to stop talking.
I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. I walked into rooms where people were laughing, their voices hitting the walls like stones, and I simply stood still—in the midst of the riot of sound. After a minute or two, silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten up all the sounds.
In the first weeks my family accepted my behavior as a post-rape, post-hospital affliction. (Neither the term nor the experience was mentioned in Grandmother’s house, where Bailey and I were again staying.) They understood that I could talk to Bailey, but to no one else.
Then came the last visit from the visiting nurse, and the doctor said I was healed. That meant that I should be back on the sidewalks playing handball or enjoying the games I had been given when I was sick. When I refused to be the child they knew and accepted me to be, I was called impudent and my muteness sullenness.
For a while I was punished for being so uppity that I wouldn’t speak; and then came the thrashings, given by any relative who felt himself offended.
We were on the train going back to Stamps, and this time it was I who had to console Bailey. He cried his heart out down the aisles of the coach, and pressed his little-boy body against the window pane looking for a last glimpse of his Mother Dear.
I have never known if Momma sent for us, or if the St. Louis family just got fed up with my grim presence. There is nothing more appalling than a constantly morose child.
I cared less about the trip than about the fact that Bailey was unhappy, and had no more thought of our destination than if I had simply been heading for the toilet.
The barrenness of Stamps was exactly what I wanted, without will or consciousness. After St. Louis, with its noise and activity, its trucks and buses, and loud family gatherings, I welcomed the obscure lanes and lonely bungalows set back deep in dirt yards.
The resignation of its inhabitants encouraged me to relax. They showed me a contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due. Their decision to be satisfied with life’s inequities was a lesson for me. Entering Stamps, I had the feeling that I was stepping over the border lines of the map and would fall, without fear, right off the end of the world. Nothing more could happen, for in Stamps nothing happened.
Into this cocoon I crept.
For an indeterminate time, nothing was demanded of me or of Bailey. We were, after all, Mrs. Henderson’s California grandchildren, and had been away on a glamorous trip way up North to the fabulous St. Louis. Our father had come the year before, driving a big, shiny automobile and speaking the King’s English with a big city accent, so all we had to do was lie quiet for months and rake in the profits of our adventures.
Farmers and maids, cooks and handymen, carpenters and all the children in town, made regular pilgrimages to the Store. “Just to see the travelers.”
They stood around like cutout cardboard figures and asked, “Well, how is it up North?”
“See any of them big buildings?”
“Ever ride in one of them elevators?”
“Was you scared?”
“Whitefolks any different, like they say?”
Bailey took it upon himself to answer every question, and from a corner of his lively imagination wove a tapestry of entertainment for them that I was sure was as foreign to him as it was to me.
He, as usual, spoke precisely. “They have, in the North, buildings so high that for months, in the winter, you can’t see the top floors.”
“Tell the truth.”
“They’ve got watermelons twice the size of a cow’s head and sweeter than syrup.” I distinctly remember his intent face and the fascinated faces of his listeners. “And if you can count the watermelon’s seeds, before it’s cut open, you can win five zillion dollars and a new car.”
Momma, knowing Bailey, warned, “Now Ju, be careful you don’t slip up on a not true.” (Nice people didn’t say “lie.”)
“Everybody wears new clothes and have inside toilets. If you fall down in one of them, you get flushed away into the Mississippi River. Some people have iceboxes, only the proper name is Cold Spot or Frigidaire. The snow is so deep you can get buried right outside your door and people won’t find you for a year. We made ice cream out of the snow.” That was the only fact that I could have supported. During the winter, we had collected a bowl of snow and poured Pet milk over it, and sprinkled it with sugar and called it ice cream.
Momma beamed and Uncle Willie was proud when Bailey regaled the customers with our exploits. We were drawing cards for the Store and objects of the town’s adoration. Our journey to magical places alone was a spot of color on the town’s drab canvas, and our return made us even more the most enviable of people.
High spots in Stamps were usually negative: droughts, floods, lynchings and deaths.
Bailey played on the country folks’ need for diversion. Just after our return he had taken to sarcasm, picked it up as one might pick up a stone, and put it snufflike under his lip. The double entendres, the two-pronged sentences, slid over his tongue to dart rapier-like into anything that happened to be in the way. Our customers, though, generally were so straight thinking and speaking that they were never hurt by his attacks. They didn’t comprehend them.
“Bailey Junior sound just like Big Bailey. Got a silver tongue. Just like his daddy.”
“I hear tell they don’t pick cotton up there. How the people live then?”
Bailey said that the cotton up North was so tall, if ordinary people tried to pick it they’d have to get up on ladders, so the cotton farmers had their cotton picked by machines.
For a while I was the only recipient of Bailey’s kindness. It was not that he pitied me but that he felt we were in the same boat for different reasons, and that I could understand his frustration just as he could countenance my withdrawal.
I never knew if Uncle Willie had been told about the incident in St. Louis, but sometimes I caught him watching me with a far-off look in his big eyes. Then he would quickly send me on some errand that would take me out of his presence. When that happened I was both relieved and ashamed. I certainly didn’t want a cripple’s sympathy (that would have been a case of the blind leading the blind), nor did I want Uncle Willie, whom I loved in my fashion, to think of me as being sinful and dirty. If he thought so, at least I didn’t want to know it.
Sounds came to me dully, as if people were speaking through their handkerchiefs or with their hands over their mouths. Colors weren’t true either, but rather a vague assortment of shaded pastels that indicated not so much color as faded familiarities. People’s names escaped me and I began to worry over my sanity. After all, we had been away less than a year, and customers whose accounts I had formerly remembered without consulting the ledger were now complete strangers.
People, except Momma and Uncle Willie, accepted my unwillingness to talk as a natural outgrowth of a reluctant return to the South. And an indication that I was pining for the high times we had had in the big city. Then, too, I was well known for being “tender-hearted.” Southern Negroes used that term to mean sensitive and ten
For nearly a year, I sopped around the house, the Store, the school and the church, like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible. Then I met, or rather got to know, the lady who threw me my first life line.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers was the aristocrat of Black Stamps. She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her. She was thin without the taut look of wiry people, and her printed voile dresses and flowered hats were as right for her as denim overalls for a farmer. She was our side’s answer to the richest white woman in town.
Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn’t encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too.
I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her. The action was so graceful and inclusively benign.
She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be.
Momma had a strange relationship with her. Most often when she passed on the road in front of the Store, she spoke to Momma in that soft yet carrying voice, “Good day, Mrs. Henderson.” Momma responded with “How you, Sister Flowers?”
Mrs. Flowers didn’t belong to our church, nor was she Momma’s familiar. Why on earth did she insist on calling her Sister Flowers? Shame made me want to hide my face. Mrs. Flowers deserved better than to be called Sister. Then, Momma left out the verb. Why not ask, “How are you, Mrs. Flowers?” With the unbalanced passion of the young, I hated her for showing her ignorance to Mrs. Flowers. It didn’t occur to me for many years that they were as alike as sisters, separated only by formal education.
Although I was upset, neither of the women was in the least shaken by what I thought an unceremonious greeting. Mrs. Flowers would continue her easy gait up the hill to her little bungalow, and Momma kept on shelling peas or doing whatever had brought her to the front porch.
Occasionally, though, Mrs. Flowers would drift off the road and down to the Store and Momma would say to me, “Sister, you go on and play.” As I left I would hear the beginning of an intimate conversation. Momma persistently using the wrong verb, or none at all.
“Brother and Sister Wilcox is sho’ly the meanest—” “Is,” Momma? “Is”? Oh, please, not “is,” Momma, for two or more. But they talked, and from the side of the building where I waited for the ground to open up and swallow me, I heard the soft-voiced Mrs. Flowers and the textured voice of my grandmother merging and melting. They were interrupted from time to time by giggles that must have come from Mrs. Flowers (Momma never giggled in her life). Then she was gone.
She appealed to me because she was like people I had never met personally. Like women in English novels who walked the moors (whatever they were) with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance. Like the women who sat in front of roaring fireplaces, drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones and crumpets. Women who walked over the “heath” and read morocco-bound books and had two last names divided by a hyphen. It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself.
She acted just as refined as whitefolks in the movies and books and she was more beautiful, for none of them could have come near that warm color without looking gray by comparison.
It was fortunate that I never saw her in the company of powhitefolks. For since they tend to think of their whiteness as an evenizer, I’m certain that I would have had to hear her spoken to commonly as Bertha, and my image of her would have been shattered like the unmendable Humpty-Dumpty.
One summer afternoon, sweet-milk fresh in my memory, she stopped at the Store to buy provisions. Another Negro woman of her health and age would have been expected to carry the paper sacks home in one hand, but Momma said, “Sister Flowers, I’ll send Bailey up to your house with these things.”
She smiled that slow dragging smile, “Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. I’d prefer Marguerite, though.” My name was beautiful when she said it. “I’ve been meaning to talk to her, anyway.” They gave each other age-group looks.
Momma said, “Well, that’s all right then. Sister, go and change your dress. You going to Sister Flowers’s.”
The chifforobe was a maze. What on earth did one put on to go to Mrs. Flowers’ house? I knew I shouldn’t put on a Sunday dress. It might be sacrilegious. Certainly not a house dress, since I was already wearing a fresh one. I chose a school dress, naturally. It was formal without suggesting that going to Mrs. Flowers’ house was equivalent to attending church.
I trusted myself back into the Store.
“Now, don’t you look nice.” I had chosen the right thing, for once.
“Mrs. Henderson, you make most of the children’s clothes, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. Sure do. Store-bought clothes ain’t hardly worth the thread it take to stitch them.”
“I’ll say you do a lovely job, though, so neat. That dress looks professional.”
Momma was enjoying the seldom-received compliments. Since everyone we knew (except Mrs. Flowers, of course) could sew competently, praise was rarely handed out for the commonly practiced craft.
“I try, with the help of the Lord, Sister Flowers, to finish the inside just like I does the outside. Come here, Sister.”
I had buttoned up the collar and tied the belt, apronlike, in back. Momma told me to turn around. With one hand she pulled the strings and the belt fell free at both sides of my waist. Then her large hands were at my neck, opening the button loops. I was terrified. What was happening?
“Take it off, Sister.” She had her hands on the hem of the dress.
“I don’t need to see the inside, Mrs. Henderson, I can tell …” But the dress was over my head and my arms were stuck in the sleeves. Momma said, “That’ll do. See here, Sister Flowers, I French-seams around the armholes.” Through the cloth film, I saw the shadow approach. “That makes it last longer. Children these days would bust out of sheet-metal clothes. They so rough.”
“That is a very good job, Mrs. Henderson. You should be proud. You can put your dress back on, Marguerite.”
“No ma’am. Pride is a sin. And ’cording to the Good Book, it goeth before a fall.”
“That’s right. So the Bible says. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.”
I wouldn’t look at either of them. Momma hadn’t thought that taking off my dress in front of Mrs. Flowers would kill me stone dead. If I had refused, she would have thought I was trying to be “womanish” and might have remembered St. Louis. Mrs. Flowers had known that I would be embarrassed and that was even worse. I picked up the groceries and went out to wait in the hot sunshine. It would be fitting if I got a sunstroke and died before they came outside. Just dropped dead on the slanting porch.
There was a little path beside the rocky road, and Mrs. Flowers walked in front swinging her arms and picking her way over the stones.
She said, without turning her head, to me, “I hear you’re doing very good school work, Marguerite, but that it’s all written. The teachers report that they have trouble getting you to talk in class.” We passed the triangular farm on our left and the path widened to allow us to walk together. I hung back in the separate unasked and unanswerable questions.
“Come and walk along with me, Marguerite.” I couldn’t have refused even if I wanted to. She pronounced my name so nicely. Or more correctly, she spoke each word with such clarity that I was certain a foreigner who didn’t understand English could have understood her.
“Now no one is going to make you talk—poss
“Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”
I memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed so valid and poetic.
She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud. She suggested that I try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible.
“I’ll accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been badly handled.” My imagination boggled at the punishment I would deserve if in fact I did abuse a book of Mrs. Flowers’. Death would be too kind and brief.
The odors in the house surprised me. Somehow I had never connected Mrs. Flowers with food or eating or any other common experience of common people. There must have been an outhouse, too, but my mind never recorded it.
The sweet scent of vanilla had met us as she opened the door.
“I made tea cookies this morning. You see, I had planned to invite you for cookies and lemonade so we could have this little chat. The lemonade is in the icebox.”
It followed that Mrs. Flowers would have ice on an ordinary day, when most families in our town bought ice late on Saturdays only a few times during the summer to be used in the wooden ice-cream freezers.
She took the bags from me and disappeared through the kitchen door. I looked around the room that I had never in my wildest fantasies imagined I would see. Browned photographs leered or threatened from the walls and the white, freshly done curtains pushed against themselves and against the wind. I wanted to gobble up the room entire and take it to Bailey, who would help me analyze and enjoy it.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes