I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
Grandmother Baxter was a quadroon or an octoroon, or in any case she was nearly white. She had been raised by a German family in Cairo, Illinois, and had come to St. Louis at the turn of the century to study nursing. While she was working at Homer G. Phillips Hospital she met and married Grandfather Baxter. She was white (having no features that could even loosely be called Negroid) and he was Black. While she spoke with a throaty German accent until her death, he had the choppy spouting speech of the West Indians.
Their marriage was a happy one. Grandfather had a famous saying that caused great pride in his family: “Bah Jesus, I live for my wife, my children and my dog.” He took extreme care to prove that statement true by taking the word of his family even in the face of contradictory evidence.
The Negro section of St. Louis in the mid-thirties had all the finesse of a gold-rush town. Prohibition, gambling and their related vocations were so obviously practiced that it was hard for me to believe that they were against the law. Bailey and I, as newcomers, were quickly told by our schoolmates who the men on the street corners were as we passed. I was sure that they had taken their names from Wild West Books (Hard-hitting Jimmy, Two Gun, Sweet Man, Poker Pete), and to prove me right, they hung around in front of saloons like unhorsed cowboys.
We met the numbers runners, gamblers, lottery takers and whiskey salesmen not only in the loud streets but in our orderly living room as well. They were often there when we returned from school, sitting with hats in their hands, as we had done upon our arrival in the big city. They waited silently for Grandmother Baxter.
Her white skin and the pince-nez that she dramatically took from her nose and let hang free on a chain pinned to her dress were factors that brought her a great deal of respect. Moreover, the reputation of her six mean children and the fact that she was a precinct captain compounded her power and gave her the leverage to deal with even the lowest crook without fear. She had pull with the police department, so the men in their flashy suits and fleshy scars sat with churchlike decorum and waited to ask favors from her. If Grandmother raised the heat off their gambling parlors, or said the word that reduced the bail of a friend waiting in jail, they knew what would be expected of them. Come election, they were to bring in the votes from their neighborhood. She most often got them leniency, and they always brought in the vote.
St. Louis also introduced me to thin-sliced ham (I thought it a delicacy), jelly beans and peanuts mixed, lettuce on sandwich bread, Victrolas and family loyalty. In Arkansas, where we cured our own meat, we ate half-inch slabs of ham for breakfast, but in St. Louis we bought the paper-thin slices in a strange-smelling German store and ate them in sandwiches. If Grandmother never lost her German accent, she also never lost her taste for the thick black German Brot, which we bought unsliced. In Stamps, lettuce was used only to make a bed for potato salad or slaw, and peanuts were brought in raw from the field and roasted in the bottom of the oven on cold nights. The rich scents used to fill the house and we were always expected to eat too many. But that was a Stamps custom. In St. Louis, peanuts were bought in paper bags and mixed with jelly beans, which meant that we ate the salt and sugar together and I found them a delicious treat. The best thing the big town had to offer.
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 three. Displeased at my stumbling motions, he was supposed to have said, “This is my sister. I have to teach her to walk.” They also told me how I got the name “My.” After Bailey learned definitely that I was his sister, he refused to call me Marguerite, but rather addressed me each time as “Mya Sister,” and in later more articulate years, after the need for brevity had shortened the appellation to “My,” it was elaborated into “Maya.”
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.