Maya Angelou and My Education

Maya AngelouI just found out that Maya Angelou has died. I was never a big fan of her poetry, but she was a great narrative writer. I loved I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I read it in high school. And there was one part that I especially liked. It was in Chapter 5. The two children have been sent to live with their grandmother—Momma—because their parents’ marriage was ending. And she describes this incident where these poor white girls come by each morning to taunt Momma. They are the lowest of the low, but they think because they are white, they are above the blacks. But they must know this is not true, based upon their behavior.

When Momma sees them coming, she sends the children inside. But she will not let these white girls affect her. Here is most of the passage, but I will warn you, this passage is one of the reasons why the book is often removed from schools. To me, it is one of the most profound things I’ve ever read:

Before the girls got to the porch, I heard their laughter crackling and popping like pine logs in a cooking stove. I suppose my lifelong paranoia was born in those cold, molasses-slow minutes. They came finally to stand on the ground in front of Momma. At first they pretended seriousness. Then one of them wrapped her right arm in the crook of her left, pushed out her mouth, and started to hum. I realized that she was aping my grandmother. Another said, “Naw, Helen, you ain’t standing like her. This here’s it.” Then she lifted her chest, folded her arms and mocked that strange carriage that was Annie Henderson. Another laughed, “Naw, you can’t do it. Your mouth ain’t pooched out enough. It’s like this.”

I thought about the rifle behind the door, but I knew I’d never be able to hold it straight, and the .410, our sawed-off shotgun, which stayed loaded and was fired every New Year’s night, was locked in the trunk and Uncle Willie had the key on his chain. Through the fly-specked screen door, I could see that the arms of Momma’s apron jiggled from the vibrations of her humming. But her knees seemed to have locked as if they would never bend again.

She sang on. No louder than before, but no softer either. No slower or faster.

The dirt of the girls’ cotton dresses continued on their legs, feet, arms, and faces to make them all of a piece. Their greasy uncolored hair hung down, uncombed, with a grim finality. I knelt to see them better, to remember them for all time. The tears that had slipped down my dress left unsurprising dark spots and made the front yard blurry and even more unreal. The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve.

The girls had tired of mocking Momma and turned to other means of agitation. One crossed her eyes, stuck her thumbs in both sides of her mouth, and said, “Look here, Annie.” Grandmother hummed on and the apron strings trembled. I wanted to throw a handful of black pepper in their faces, to throw lye on them, to scream that they were dirty, scummy peckerwoods, but I knew I was as clearly imprisoned behind the scene as the actors outside were confined to their roles.

One of the smaller girls did a kind of puppet dance while her fellow clowns laughed at her. But the tall one, who was almost a woman, said something very quietly, which I couldn’t hear. They all moved backward from the porch, still watching Momma. For an awful second I thought they were going to throw a rock at Momma, who seemed (except for the apron strings) to have turned into stone herself. But the big girl turned her back, bent down, and put her hands flat on the ground—she didn’t pick up anything. She simply shifted her weight and did a handstand.

Her dirty bare feet and long legs went straight for the sky. Her dress fell down around her shoulders, and she had on no drawers. The slick pubic hair made a brown triangle where her legs came together. She hung in the vacuum of that lifeless morning for only a few seconds, then wavered and tumbled. The other girls clapped her on the back and slapped their hands.

Momma changed her song to “Bread of Heaven, bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.”

I found that I was praying too. How long could Momma hold out? What new indignity would they think of to subject her to? Would I be able to stay out of it? What would Momma really like me to do?

Then they were moving out of the yard, on their way to town. They bobbed their heads and shook their slack behinds and turned, one at a time:

“‘Bye, Annie.”

“‘Bye, Annie.”

“‘Bye, Annie.”

Momma never turned her head or unfolded her arms, but she stopped singing and said, “‘Bye, Miz Helen, ‘bye, Miz Ruth, ‘bye, Miz Eloise.”

Note the girls call the older woman by her familiar name, and she replies respectfully to each of them. I felt then as I feel now, like the young Angelou: I want to kill those girls. But Momma was right. Momma is an extremely strong woman. And a better person than I.

Maya Angelou was 86 years old. She will be missed.

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