I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)

Chapter 18

Another day was over. In the soft dark the cotton truck spilled the pickers out and roared out of the yard with a sound like a giant’s fart. The workers stepped around in circles for a few seconds as if they had found themselves unexpectedly in an unfamiliar place. Their minds sagged.

In the Store the men’s faces were the most painful to watch, but I seemed to have no choice. When they tried to smile to carry off their tiredness as if it was nothing, the body did nothing to help the mind’s attempt at disguise. Their shoulders drooped even as they laughed, and when they put their hands on their hips in a show of jauntiness, the palms slipped the thighs as if the pants were waxed.

“Evening, Sister Henderson. Well, back where we started, huh?”

“Yes, sir, Brother Stewart. Back where you started, bless the Lord.” Momma could not take the smallest achievement for granted. People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all. I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed.

“That’s just who get the credit. Yes, ma’am. The blessed Lord.” Their overalls and shirts seemed to be torn on purpose and the cotton lint and dust in their hair gave them the appearance of people who had turned gray in the past few hours.

The women’s feet had swollen to fill the discarded men’s shoes they wore, and they washed their arms at the well to dislodge dirt and splinters that had accrued to them as part of the day’s pickings.

I thought them all hateful to have allowed themselves to be worked like oxen, and even more shameful to try to pretend that things were not as bad as they were. When they leaned too hard on the partly glass candy counter, I wanted to tell them shortly to stand up and “assume the posture of a man,” but Momma would have beaten me if I’d opened my mouth. She ignored the creaks of the counter under their weight and moved around filling their orders and keeping up a conversation. “Going to put your dinner on, Sister Williams?” Bailey and I helped Momma, while Uncle Willie sat on the porch and heard the day’s account.

“Praise the Lord, no, ma’am. Got enough left over from last night to do us. We going home and get cleaned up to go to the revival meeting.”

Go to church in that cloud of weariness? Not go home and lay those tortured bones in a feather bed? The idea came to me that my people may be a race of masochists and that not only was it our fate to live the poorest, roughest life but that we liked it like that.

“I know what you mean, Sister Williams. Got to feed the soul just like you feed the body. I’m taking the children, too, the Lord willing. Good Book say, ‘Raise a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it.’”

“That’s what it say. Sure is what it say.”

The cloth tent had been set on the flatlands in the middle of a field near the railroad tracks. The earth was carpeted with a silky layer of dried grass and cotton stalks. Collapsible chairs were poked into the still-soft ground and a large wooden cross was hung from the center beam at the rear of the tent. Electric lights had been strung from behind the pulpit to the entrance flap and continued outside on poles made of rough two-by-fours.

Approached in the dark the swaying bulbs looked lonely and purposeless. Not as if they were there to provide light or anything meaningful. And the tent, that blurry bright three-dimensional A, was so foreign to the cotton field, that it might just get up and fly away before my eyes.

People, suddenly visible in the lamplight, streamed toward the temporary church. The adults’ voices relayed the serious intent of their mission. Greetings were exchanged, hushed.

“Evening, sister, how you?”

“Bless the Lord, just trying to make it in.”

Their minds were concentrated on the coming meeting, soul to soul, with God. This was no time to indulge in human concerns or personal questions.

“The good Lord give me another day, and I’m thankful.” Nothing personal in that. The credit was God’s, and there was no illusion about the Central Position’s shifting or becoming less than Itself.

Teenagers enjoyed revivals as much as adults. They used the night outside meetings to play at courting. The impermanence of a collapsible church added to the frivolity, and their eyes flashed and winked and the girls giggled little silver drops in the dusk while the boys postured and swaggered and pretended not to notice. The nearly grown girls wore skirts as tight as the custom allowed and the young men slicked their hair down with Moroline Hairdressing and water.

To small children, though, the idea of praising God in a tent was confusing, to say the least. It seemed somehow blasphemous. The lights hanging slack overhead, the soft ground underneath and the canvas wall that faintly blew in and out, like cheeks puffed with air, made for the feeling of a country fair. The nudgings and jerks and winks of the bigger children surely didn’t belong in a church. But the tension of the elders—their expectation, which weighted like a thick blanket over the crowd—was the most perplexing of all.

Would the gentle Jesus care to enter into that transitory setting? The altar wobbled and threatened to overturn and the collection table sat at a rakish angle. One leg had yielded itself to the loose dirt. Would God the Father allow His only Son to mix with this crowd of cotton pickers and maids, washerwomen and handymen? I knew He sent His spirit on Sundays to the church, but after all that was a church and the people had had all day Saturday to shuffle off the cloak of work and the skin of despair.

Everyone attended the revival meetings. Members of the hoity-toity Mount Zion Baptist Church mingled with the intellectual members of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and the plain working people of the Christian Methodist Episcopal. These gatherings provided the one time in the year when all of those good village people associated with the followers of the Church of God in Christ. The latter were looked upon with some suspicion because they were so loud and raucous in their services. Their explanation that “the Good Book say, ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and be exceedingly glad’” did not in the least minimize the condescension of their fellow Christians. Their church was far from the others, but they could be heard on Sunday, a half mile away, singing and dancing until they sometimes fell down in a dead faint. Members of the other churches wondered if the Holy Rollers were going to heaven after all their shouting. The suggestion was that they were having their heaven right here on earth.

This was their annual revival.

Mrs. Duncan, a little woman with a bird face, started the service. “I know I’m a witness for my Lord … I know I’m a witness for my Lord, I know I’m a witness …”

Her voice, a skinny finger, stabbed high up in the air and the church responded. From somewhere down front came the jangling sound of a tambourine. Two beats on “know,” two beats on “I’m a” and two beats on the end of “witness.”

Other voices joined the near shriek of Mrs. Duncan. They crowded around and tenderized the tone. Handclaps snapped in the roof and solidified the beat. When the song reached its peak in sound and passion, a tall, thin man who had been kneeling behind the altar all the while stood up and sang with the audience for a few bars. He stretched out his long arms and grasped the platform. It took some time for the singers to come off their level of exaltation, but the minister stood resolute until the song unwound like a child’s playtoy and lay quieted in the aisles.

“Amen.” He looked at the audience.

“Yes, sir, amen.” Nearly everyone seconded him.

“I say, Let the church say ‘Amen.’”

Everyone said, “Amen.”

“Thank the Lord. Thank the Lord.”

“That’s right, thank the Lord. Yes, Lord. Amen.”

“We will have prayer, led by Brother Bishop.”

Another tall, brown-skinned man wearing square glasses walked up to the altar from the front row. The minister knelt at the right and Brother Bishop at the left.

“Our Father”—he was singing—“You who took my feet out the mire and clay—”

The church moaned, “Amen.”

“You who saved my soul. One day. Look, sweet Jesus. Look down, on these your suffering children—”

The church begged, “Look down, Lord.”

“Build us up where we’re torn down … Bless the sick and the afflicted …”

It was the usual prayer. Only his voice gave it something new. After every two words he gasped and dragged the air over his vocal chords, making a sound like an inverted grunt. “You who”—grunt—“saved my”—gasp—“soul one”—inhalation—“day”—humph.”

Then the congregation, led again by Mrs. Duncan, flew into “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand.” It was sung at a faster clip than the usual one in the C.M.E. Church, but at that tempo it worked. There was a joy about the tune that changed the meaning of its sad lyrics. “When the darkness appears, and the night draweth near and my life is almost gone …” There seemed to be an abandon which suggested that with all those things it should be a time for great rejoicing.

The serious shouters had already made themselves known, and their fans (cardboard advertisements from Texarkana’s largest Negro funeral home) and lacy white handkerchiefs waved high in the air. In their dark hands they looked like small kites without the wooden frames.

The tall minister stood again at the altar. He waited for the song and the revelry to die.

He said, “Amen. Glory.”

The church skidded off the song slowly. “Amen. Glory.”

He still waited, as the last notes remained in the air, staircased on top of each other. “At the river I stand—” “I stand, guide my feet—” “Guide my feet, take my hand.” Sung like the last circle in a round. Then quiet descended.

The Scripture reading was from Matthew, twenty-fifth chapter, thirtieth verse through the forty-sixth.

His text for the sermon was “The least of these.”

After reading the verses to the accompaniment of a few Amens he said, “First Corinthians tells me, ‘Even if I have the tongue of men and of angels and have not charity, I am as nothing. Even if I give all my clothes to the poor and have not charity, I am as nothing. Even if I give my body to be burned and have not charity it availeth me nothing. Burned, I say, and have not charity, it availeth nothing.’ I have to ask myself, what is this thing called Charity? If good deeds are not charity—”

The church gave in quickly. “That’s right, Lord.”

“—if giving my flesh and blood is not charity?”

“Yes, Lord.”

“I have to ask myself what is this charity they talking so much about.”

I had never heard a preacher jump into the muscle of his sermon so quickly. Already the humming pitch had risen in the church, and those who knew had popped their eyes in anticipation of the coming excitement. Momma sat tree-trunk still, but she had balled her handkerchief in her hand and only the corner, which I had embroidered, stuck out.

“As I understand it, charity vaunteth not itself. Is not puffed up.” He blew himself up with a deep breath to give us the picture of what Charity was not. “Charity don’t go around saying ‘I give you food and I give you clothes and by rights you ought to thank me.’”

The congregation knew whom he was talking about and voiced agreement with his analysis. “Tell the truth, Lord.”

“Charity don’t say, ‘Because I give you a job, you got to bend your knee to me.’” The church was rocking with each phrase. “It don’t say, ‘Because I pays you what you due, you got to call me master.’ It don’t ask me to humble myself and belittle myself. That ain’t what Charity is.”

Down front to the right, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, who only a few hours earlier had crumbled in our front yard, defeated by the cotton rows, now sat on the edges of their rickety-rackety chairs. Their faces shone with the delight of their souls. The mean whitefolks was going to get their comeuppance. Wasn’t that what the minister said, and wasn’t he quoting from the words of God Himself? They had been refreshed with the hope of revenge and the promise of justice.

“Aaagh. Raagh. I said … Charity. Woooooo, a Charity. It don’t want nothing for itself. It don’t want to be bossman … Waah … It don’t want to be headman … Waah … It don’t want to be foreman … Waah … It … I’m talking about Charity … It don’t want … Oh Lord … help me tonight … It don’t want to be bowed to and scraped at …”

America’s historic bowers and scrapers shifted easily and happily in the makeshift church. Reassured that although they might be the lowest of the low they were at least not uncharitable, and “in that great Gettin’ Up Morning, Jesus was going to separate the sheep (them) from the goats (the whitefolks).”

“Charity is simple.” The church agreed, vocally.

“Charity is poor.” That was us he was talking about.

“Charity is plain.” I thought, that’s about right. Plain and simple.

“Charity is … Oh, Oh, Oh. Cha-ri-ty. Where are you? Wooo … Charity … Hump.”

One chair gave way and the sound of splintering wood split the air in the rear of the church.

“I call you and you don’t answer. Woooh, oh Charity.”

Another holler went up in front of me, and a large woman flopped over, her arms above her head like a candidate for baptism. The emotional release was contagious. Little screams burst around the room like Fourth of July firecrackers.

The minister’s voice was a pendulum. Swinging left and down and right and down and left and—“How can you claim to be my brother, and hate me? Is that Charity? How can you claim to be my sister and despise me? Is that supposed to be Charity? How can you claim to be my friend and misuse and wrongfully abuse me? Is that Charity? Oh, my children, I stopped by here—”

The church swung on the end of his phrases. Punctuating. Confirming. “Stop by here, Lord.”

“—to tell you, to open your heart and let Charity reign. Forgive your enemies for His sake. Show the Charity that Jesus was speaking of to this sick old world. It has need of the charitable giver.” His voice was falling and the explosions became fewer and quieter.

“And now I repeat the words of the Apostle Paul, and ‘now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’”

The congregation lowed with satisfaction. Even if they were society’s pariahs, they were going to be angels in a marble white heaven and sit on the right hand of Jesus, the Son of God. The Lord loved the poor and hated those cast high in the world. Hadn’t He Himself said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven? They were assured that they were going to be the only inhabitants of that land of milk and honey, except of course a few whitefolks like John Brown who history books said was crazy anyway. All the Negroes had to do generally, and those at the revival especially, was bear up under this life of toil and cares, because a blessed home awaited them in the far-off bye and bye.

“Bye and bye, when the morning come, when all the saints of God’s are gathering home, we will tell the story of how we overcome and we’ll understand it better bye and bye.”

A few people who had fainted were being revived on the side aisles when the evangelist opened the doors of the church. Over the sounds of “Thank you, Jesus,” he started a long-meter hymn:

“I came to Jesus, as I was,
worried, wounded and sad,
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.”

The old ladies took up the hymn and shared it in tight harmony. The humming crowd began to sound like tired bees, restless and anxious to get home.

“All those under the sound of my voice who have no spiritual home, whose hearts are burdened and heavy-ladened, let them come. Come before it’s too late. I don’t ask you to join the Church of God in Christ. No. I’m a servant of God, and in this revival, we are out to bring straying souls to Him. So if you join this evening, just say which church you want to be affiliated with, and we will turn you over to a representative of that church body. Will one deacon of the following churches come forward?”

That was revolutionary action. No one had ever heard of a minister taking in members for another church. It was our first look at Charity among preachers. Men from the A.M.E., A.M.E.Z., Baptist and C.M.E. churches went down front and assumed stances a few feet apart. Converted sinners flowed down the aisles to shake hands with the evangelist and stayed at his side or were directed to one of the men in line. Over twenty people were saved that night.

There was nearly as much commotion over the saving of the sinners as there had been during the gratifying melodic sermon.

The Mothers of the Church, old ladies with white lace disks pinned to their thinning hair, had a service all their own. They walked around the new converts singing,

“Before this time another year,
I may be gone,
In some lonesome graveyard,
Oh, Lord, how long?”

When the collection was taken up and the last hymn given to the praise of God, the evangelist asked that everyone in his presence rededicate his soul to God and his life’s work to Charity. Then we were dismissed.

Outside and on the way home, the people played in their magic, as children poke in mud pies, reluctant to tell themselves that the game was over.

“The Lord touched him tonight, didn’t He?”

“Surely did. Touched him with a mighty fire.”

“Bless the Lord. I’m glad I’m saved.”

“That’s the truth. It make a whole lot of difference.”

“I wish them people I works for could of heard that sermon. They don’t know what they letting theyselves in for.”

“Bible say, ‘He who can hear, let him hear. He who can’t, shame on ’em.’”

They basked in the righteousness of the poor and the exclusiveness of the downtrodden. Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly—mostly—let them have their whiteness. It was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time than to spend eternity frying in the fires of hell. No one would have admitted that the Christian and charitable people were happy to think of their oppressors’ turning forever on the Devil’s spit over the flames of fire and brimstone.

But that was what the Bible said and it didn’t make mistakes. “Ain’t it said somewhere in there that ‘before one word of this changes, heaven and earth shall fall away?’ Folks going to get what they deserved.”

When the main crowd of worshipers reached the short bridge spanning the pond, the ragged sound of honky-tonk music assailed them. A barrelhouse blues was being shouted over the stamping of feet on a wooden floor. Miss Grace, the good-time woman, had her usual Saturday-night customers. The big white house blazed with lights and noise. The people inside had forsaken their own distress for a little while.

Passing near the din, the godly people dropped their heads and conversation ceased. Reality began its tedious crawl back into their reasoning. After all, they were needy and hungry and despised and dispossessed, and sinners the world over were in the driver’s seat. How long, merciful Father? How long?

A stranger to the music could not have made a distinction between the songs sung a few minutes before and those being danced to in the gay house by the railroad tracks. All asked the same questions. How long, oh God? How long?