Top Quotes: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” — Maya Angelou
“When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed-”To Whom It May Concern”-that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.
Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. A porter had been charged with our welfare — he got off the train the next day in Arizona-and our tickets were pinned to my brother’s inside coat pocket.
I don’t remember much of the trip, but after we reached the segregated southern part of the journey, things must have looked up. Negro passengers, who always traveled with loaded lunch boxes, felt sorry for “the poor little motherless darlings” and plied us with cold fried chicken and potato salad.”
“His twang jogged in the brittle air. From the side of the Store, Bailey and I heard him say to Momma, “Annie, tell Willie he better lay low tonight. A crazy nigger messed with a white lady today. Some of the boys’ll be coming over here later.” Even after the slow drag of years, I remember the sense of fear which filled my mouth with hot, dry air, and made my body light.
The “boys”? Those cement faces and eyes of hate that burned the clothes off you if they happened to see you lounging on the main street downtown on Saturday. Boys? It seemed that youth had never happened to them. Boys? No, rather men who were covered with graves’ dust and age without beauty or learning. The ugliness and rottenness of old abominations.
If on Judgment Day I were summoned by St. Peter to give testimony to the used-to-be sheriff’s act of kindness, I would be unable to say anything in his behalf. His confidence that my uncle and every other Black man who heard of the Klan’s coming ride would scurry under their houses to hide in chicken droppings was too humiliating to hear. Without waiting for Momma’s thanks, he rode out of the yard, sure that things were as they should be and that he was a gentle squire, saving those deserving serfs from the laws of the land, which he condoned.
Immediately, while his horse’s hoofs were still loudly thudding the ground, Momma blew out the coal-oil lamps. She had a quiet, hard talk with Uncle Willie and called Bailey and me into the Store.
We were told to take the potatoes and onions out of their bins and knock out the dividing walls that kept them apart. Then with a tedious and fearful slowness Uncle Willie gave me his rubber-tipped cane and bent down to get into the now-enlarged empty bin. It took forever before he lay down flat, and then we covered him with potatoes and onions, layer upon layer, like a casserole. Grandmother knelt praying in the darkened Store.
It was fortunate that the “boys” didn’t ride into our yard that evening and insist that Momma open the Store. They would have surely found Uncle Willie and just as surely lynched him. He moaned the whole night through as if he had, in fact, been guilty of some heinous crime. The heavy sounds pushed their way up out of the blanket of vegetables and I pictured his mouth pulling down on the right side and his saliva flowing into the eyes of new potatoes and waiting there like dew drops for the warmth of morning.”
“The pleasure fled when we reached the white part of town. After we left Mr. Willie Williams’ Do Drop Inn, the last stop before white-folksville, we had to cross the pond and adventure the railroad tracks. We were explorers walking without weapons into maneating animals’ territory.
In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.
I remember never believing that whites were really real.”
“Whitefolks couldn’t be people because their feet were too small, their skin too white and see-throughy, and they didn’t walk on the balls of their feet the way people did — they walked on their heels like horses.
People were those who lived on my side of town. I didn’t like them all, or, in fact, any of them very much, but they were people. These others, the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife, weren’t considered folks. They were white- folks.”
“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 any- thing 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.”
“”Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s.”
He had never once looked at me. He turned his back and went through the door into the cool beyond.”
“In the early months of World War II, San Francisco’s Fill-more district, or the Western Addition, experienced a visible revolution. On the surface it appeared to be totally peaceful and almost a refutation of the term “revolution.” The Yakamoto Sea Food Market quietly became Sammy’s Shoe Shine Parlor and Smoke Shop. Yashigira’s Hardware metamorphosed into La Salon de Beauté owned by Miss Clorinda Jackson. The Japanese shops which sold products to Nisei customers were taken over by enterprising Negro businessmen, and in less than a year became permanent homes away from home for the newly arrived Southern Blacks. Where the odors of tempura, raw fish and cha had dominated, the aroma of chitlings, greens and ham hocks now prevailed.
The Asian population dwindled before my eyes. I was unable to tell the Japanese from the Chinese and as yet found no real difference in the national origin of such sounds as Ching and Chan or Moto and Kano.
As the Japanese disappeared, soundlessly and without protest, the Negroes entered with their loud jukeboxes, their just- released animosities and the relief of escape from Southern bonds. The Japanese area became San Francisco’s Harlem in a matter of months.
A person unaware of all the factors that make up oppression might have expected sympathy or even support from the Negro newcomers for the dislodged Japanese. Especially in view of the fact that they (the Blacks) had themselves undergone concentration-camp living for centuries in slavery’s plantations and later in sharecroppers’ cabins. But the sensations of common relationship were missing.
The Black newcomer had been recruited on the desiccated farm lands of Georgia and Mississippi by war-plant labor scouts. The chance to live in two-or three-story apartment buildings (which became instant slums), and to earn two-and even three-figured weekly checks, was blinding. For the first time he could think of himself as a Boss, a Spender. He was able to pay other people to work for him, i.e. the dry cleaners, taxi drivers, waitresses, etc. The shipyards and ammunition plants brought to booming life by the war let him know that he was needed and even appreciated. A completely alien yet very pleasant position for him to experience. Who could expect this man to share his new and dizzying importance with concern for a race that he had never known to exist?”
“She greeted each class with “Good day, ladies and gentlemen.” I had never heard an adult speak with such respect to teenagers. (Adults usually believe that a show of honor diminishes their authority.) “In today’s Chronicle there was an article on the mining industry in the Carolinas (or some such distant subject]. I am certain that all of you have read the article. I would like someone to elaborate on the subject for me.”
After the first two weeks in her class, I, along with all the other excited students, read the San Francisco papers, Time magazine, Life and everything else available to me.”
“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 embarrass the community and many people wistfully wonder why Negroes don’t rob more banks, embezzle more funds and employ graft in the unions.
“We are the victims of the world’s most comprehensive robbery. Life demands a balance. It’s all right if we do a little robbing now.” This belief appeals particularly to one who is unable to compete legally with his fellow citizens.”
“We were like actors who, knowing the play by heart, were still able to cry afresh over the old tragedies and laugh spontaneously at the comic situations.
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.”
“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 m 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.”
“Had I been older I might have thought that I was moved by both an esthetic sense of beauty and the pure emotion of envy. But those possibilities did not occur to me when I needed them. All I knew was that I had been moved by looking at a woman’s breasts. So all the calm and casual words of Mother’s explanation a few weeks earlier and the clinical terms of Noah Webster did not alter the fact that in a fundamental way there was something queer about me.
I somersaulted deeper into my snuggery of misery. After a thorough self-examination, in the light of all I had read and heard about dykes and bulldaggers, I reasoned that I had none of the obvious traits — I didn’t wear trousers, or have big shoulders or go in for sports, or walk like a man or even want to touch a woman. I wanted to be a woman, but that seemed to me to be a world to which I was to be eternally refused entrance.
What I needed was a boyfriend. A boyfriend would clarify my position to the world and, even more important, to myself. A boyfriend’s acceptance of me would guide me into that strange and exotic land of frills and femininity.”
“I decided to take matters into my own hands. (An unfortunate but apt phrase.)
Up the hill from our house, and on the same side of the street, lived two handsome brothers. They were easily the most eligible young men in the neighborhood. If I was going to venture into sex, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t make my experiment with the best of the lot. I didn’t really expect to capture either brother on a permanent basis, but I thought if I could hook one temporarily I might be able to work the relationship into something more lasting.
I planned a chart for seduction with surprise as my opening ploy. One evening as I walked up the hill suffering from youth’s vague malaise (there was simply nothing to do), the brother I had chosen came walking directly into my trap.
“Hello, Marguerite.” He nearly passed me.
I put the plan into action. “Hey.” I plunged, “Would you like to have a sexual intercourse with me?” Things were going according to the chart. His mouth hung open like a garden gate.”
“Three weeks later, having thought very little of the strange and strangely empty night, I found myself pregnant.”
“She noticed me, as usual, out of the corner of her existence. As long as I was healthy, clothed and smiling she felt no need to focus her attention on me. As always, her major concern was to live the life given to her, and her children were expected to do the same. And to do it without too much brouhaha.”