I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
Knowing Momma, I knew that I never knew Momma. Her African-bush secretiveness and suspiciousness had been compounded by slavery and confirmed by centuries of promises made and promises broken. We have a saying among Black Americans which describes Momma’s caution. “If you ask a Negro where he’s been, he’ll tell you where he’s going.” To understand this important information, it is necessary to know who uses this tactic and on whom it works. If an unaware person is told a part of the truth (it is imperative that the answer embody truth), he is satisfied that his query has been answered. If an aware person (one who himself uses the stratagem) is given an answer which is truthful but bears only slightly if at all on the question, he knows that the information he seeks is of a private nature and will not be handed to him willingly. Thus direct denial, lying and the revelation of personal affairs are avoided.
Momma told us one day that she was taking us to California. She explained that we were growing up, that we needed to be with our parents, that Uncle Willie was, after all, crippled, that she was getting old. All true, and yet none of those truths satisfied our need for The Truth. The Store and the rooms in back became a going-away factory. Momma sat at the sewing machine all hours, making and remaking clothes for use in California. Neighbors brought out of their trunks pieces of material that had been packed away for decades in blankets of mothballs (I’m certain I was the only girl in California who went to school in water-marked moiré skirts and yellowed satin blouses, satin-back crepe dresses and crepe de Chine underwear).
Whatever the real reason, The Truth, for taking us to California, I shall always think it lay mostly in an incident in which Bailey had the leading part. Bailey had picked up the habit of imitating Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall and George McCready. I didn’t think it at all strange that a thirteen-year-old boy in the unreconstructed Southern town of Stamps spoke with an Englishy accent. His heroes included D’Artagnan and the Count of Monte Cristo and he affected what he thought were their swashbuckling gallantries.
On an afternoon a few weeks before Momma revealed her plan to take us West, Bailey came into the Store shaking. His little face was no longer black but a dirty, colorless gray. As was our habit upon entering the Store, he walked behind the candy counter and leaned on the cash register. Uncle Willie had sent him on an errand to whitefolks’ town and he wanted an explanation for Bailey’s tardiness. After a brief moment our uncle could see that something was wrong, and feeling unable to cope, he called Momma from the kitchen.
“What’s the matter, Bailey Junior?”
He said nothing. I knew when I saw him that it would be useless to ask anything while he was in that state. It meant that he had seen or heard of something so ugly or frightening that he was paralyzed as a result. He explained when we were smaller that when things were very bad his soul just crawled behind his heart and curled up and went to sleep. When it awoke, the fearful thing had gone away. Ever since we read The Fall of the House of Usher, we had made a pact that neither of us would allow the other to be buried without making “absolutely, positively sure” (his favorite phrase) that the person was dead. I also had to swear that when his soul was sleeping I would never try to wake it, for the shock might make it go to sleep forever. So I let him be, and after a while Momma had to let him alone too.
I waited on customers, and walked around him or leaned over him and, as I suspected, he didn’t respond. When the spell wore off he asked Uncle Willie what colored people had done to white people in the first place. Uncle Willie, who never was one for explaining things because he took after Momma, said little except that “colored people hadn’t even bothered a hair on whitefolks’ heads.” Momma added that some people said that whitefolks had come over to Africa (she made it sound like a hidden valley on the moon) and stole the colored people and made them slaves, but nobody really believed it was true. No way to explain what happened “blows and scores” ago, but right now they had the upper hand. Their time wasn’t long, though. Didn’t Moses lead the children of Israel out of the bloody hands of Pharaoh and into the Promised Land? Didn’t the Lord protect the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace and didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? We only had to wait on the Lord.
Bailey said he saw a man, a colored man, whom nobody had delivered. He was dead. (If the news hadn’t been so important, we would have been visited with one of Momma’s outbursts and prayers. Bailey was nearly blaspheming.) He said, “The man was dead and rotten. Not stinking but rotten.”
Momma ordered, “Ju, watch your tongue.”
Uncle Willie asked, “Who, who was it?”
Bailey was just tall enough to clear his face over the cash register. He said, “When I passed the calaboose, some men had just fished him out of the pond. He was wrapped in a sheet, all rolled up like a mummy, then a white man walked over and pulled the sheet off. The man was on his back but the white man stuck his foot under the sheet and rolled him over on the stomach.”
He turned to me. “My, he had no color at all. He was bloated like a ball.” (We had had a running argument for months. Bailey said there was no such thing as colorlessness, and I argued that if there was color there also had to be an opposite and now he was admitting that it was possible. But I didn’t feel good about my win.) “The colored men backed off and I did too, but the white man stood there, looking down, and grinned. Uncle Willie, why do they hate us so much?”
Uncle Willie muttered, “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared.”
Momma asked if Bailey had recognized the man, but he was caught in the happening and the event.
“Mr. Bubba told me I was too young to see something like that and I oughta hightail it home, but I had to stay. Then the white man called us closer. He said, ‘O.K., you boys, stretch him out in the calaboose and when the Sheriff comes along he’ll notify his people. This here’s one nigger nobody got to worry about no more. He ain’t going nowhere else.’ Then the men picked up corners of the sheet, but since nobody wanted to get close to the man they held the very ends and he nearly rolled out on the ground. The white man called me to come and help too.”
Momma exploded. “Who was it?” She made herself clear. “Who was the white man?”
Bailey couldn’t let go of the horror. “I picked up a side of the sheet and walked right in the calaboose with the men. I walked in the calaboose carrying a rotten dead Negro.” His voice was ancient with shock. He was literally bug-eyed.
“The white man played like he was going to lock us all up in there, but Mr. Bubba said ‘Ow, Mr. Jim. We didn’t do it. We ain’t done nothing wrong.’ Then the white man laughed and said we boys couldn’t take a joke, and opened the door.” He breathed his relief. “Whew, I was glad to get out of there. The calaboose, and the prisoners screaming they didn’t want no dead nigger in there with them. That he’d stink up the place. They called the white man ‘Boss.’ They said, ‘Boss, surely we ain’t done nothing bad enough for you to put another nigger in here with us, and a dead one at that.’ Then they laughed. They all laughed like there was something funny.”
Bailey was talking so fast he forgot to stutter, he forgot to scratch his head and clean his fingernails with his teeth. He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to unravel, start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death. The humorless puzzle of inequality and hate. His experience raised the question of worth and values, of aggressive inferiority and aggressive arrogance. Could Uncle Willie, a Black man, Southern, crippled moreover, hope to answer the questions, both asked and unuttered? Would Momma, who knew the ways of the whites and the wiles of the Blacks, try to answer her grandson, whose very life depended on his not truly understanding the enigma? Most assuredly not.
They both responded characteristically. Uncle Willie said something like he didn’t know what the world was coming to, and Momma prayed, “God rest his soul, poor man.” I’m sure she began piecing together the details of our California trip that night.
Our transportation was Momma’s major concern for some weeks. She had arranged with a railroad employee to provide her with a pass in exchange for groceries. The pass allowed a reduction in her fare only, and even that had to be approved, so we were made to abide in a kind of limbo until white people we would never see, in offices we would never visit, signed and stamped and mailed the pass back to Momma. My fare had to be paid in “ready cash.” That sudden drain on the nickel-plated cash register lopsided our financial stability. Momma decided Bailey couldn’t accompany us, since we had to use the pass during a set time, but that he would follow within a month or so when outstanding bills were paid. Although our mother now lived in San Francisco, Momma must have felt it wiser to go first to Los Angeles where our father was. She dictated letters to me, advising them both that we were on our way.
And we were on our way, but unable to say when. Our clothes were washed, ironed and packed, so for an immobile time we wore those things not good enough to glow under the California sun. Neighbors, who understood the complications of travel, said goodbye a million times.
“Well, if I don’t see you before your ticket comes through, Sister Henderson, have a good trip and hurry back home.” A widowed friend of Momma’s had agreed to look after (cook, wash, clean and provide company for) Uncle Willie, and after thousands of arrested departures, at last we left Stamps.
My sorrow at leaving was confined to a gloom at separating from Bailey for a month (we had never been parted), the imagined loneliness of Uncle Willie (he put on a good face, though at thirty-five he’d never been separated from his mother) and the loss of Louise, my first friend. I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.