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

Chapter 7

Momma had married three times: Mr. Johnson, my grandfather, who left her around the turn of the century with two small sons to raise; Mr. Henderson, of whom I know nothing at all (Momma never answered questions directly put to her on any subject except religion); then finally Mr. Murphy. I saw him a fleeting once. He came through Stamps on a Saturday night, and Grandmother gave me the chore of making his pallet on the floor. He was a stocky dark man who wore a snap-brim hat like George Raft. The next morning he hung around the Store until we returned from church. That marked the first Sunday I knew Uncle Willie to miss services. Bailey said he stayed home to keep Mr. Murphy from stealing us blind. He left in the middle of the afternoon after one of Momma’s extensive Sunday dinners. His hat pushed back off his forehead, he walked down the road whistling. I watched his thick back until he turned the bend by the big white church.

People spoke of Momma as a good-looking woman and some, who remembered her youth, said she used to be right pretty. I saw only her power and strength. She was taller than any woman in my personal world, and her hands were so large they could span my head from ear to ear. Her voice was soft only because she chose to keep it so. In church, when she was called upon to sing, she seemed to pull out plugs from behind her jaws and the huge, almost rough sound would pour over the listeners and throb in the air.

Each Sunday, after she had taken her seat, the minister would announce, “We will now be led in a hymn by Sister Henderson.” And each Sunday she looked up with amazement at the preacher and asked silently, “Me?” After a second of assuring herself that she indeed was being called upon, she laid down her handbag and slowly folded her handkerchief. This was placed neatly on top of the purse, then she leaned on the bench in front and pushed herself to a standing position, and then she opened her mouth and the song jumped out as if it had only been waiting for the right time to make an appearance. Week after week and year after year the performance never changed, yet I don’t remember anyone’s ever remarking on her sincerity or readiness to sing.

Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths in life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones. She didn’t cotton to the idea that whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one’s life. And certainly they couldn’t be spoken to insolently. In fact, even in their absence they could not be spoken of too harshly unless we used the sobriquet “They.” If she had been asked and had chosen to answer the question of whether she was cowardly or not, she would have said that she was a realist. Didn’t she stand up to “them” year after year? Wasn’t she the only Negro woman in Stamps referred to once as Mrs.?

That incident became one of Stamps’ little legends. Some years before Bailey and I arrived in town, a man was hunted down for assaulting white womanhood. In trying to escape he ran to the Store. Momma and Uncle Willie hid him behind the chifforobe until night, gave him supplies for an overland journey and sent him on his way. He was, however, apprehended, and in court when he was questioned as to his movements on the day of the crime, he replied that after he heard that he was being sought he took refuge in Mrs. Henderson’s Store.

The judge asked that Mrs. Henderson be subpoenaed, and when Momma arrived and said she was Mrs. Henderson, the judge, the bailiff and other whites in the audience laughed. The judge had really made a gaffe calling a Negro woman Mrs., but then he was from Pine Bluff and couldn’t have been expected to know that a woman who owned a store in that village would also turn out to be colored. The whites tickled their funny bones with the incident for a long time, and the Negroes thought it proved the worth and majesty of my grandmother.