Angelou: Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Growing Up Black

“What you looking at me for?  I didn’t come to stay.

I hadn’t forgotten the next line, but I couldn’t make myself

remember. Other things were more important. Whether I could

remember the rest of the poem or not didn’t matter. The truth of

the statement was like a wet handkerchief crushed in my fists.

The sooner they accepted it, the quicker I could let my hands

open and the air would cool them.

“What you looking at me for…?”

The children’s section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal

Church was laughing at my well-known forgetfulness.

The dress I wore was light purple. As I’d watched Momma

make it, putting fancy stitching on the waist, I knew that when I

put it on I’d look like one of the sweet little white girls who were

everyone’s dream of what was right with the world. Hanging

softly over the black Singer sewing machine, it looked like magic.

When people saw me wearing it, they were going to run up to

me and say, “Marguerite [sometimes it was ‘dear Marguerite’],

forgive us, please, we didn’t know who you were,” and I would

answer generously, “No, you couldn’t have known. Of course, I

forgive you.”

Just thinking about it made me feel heavenly for days. But

Easter’s early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly

one made from a white woman’s faded purple throwaway. It was

long like an old lady’s dress, but it didn’t hide my legs. The faded

color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church

was looking at my thin legs.

Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my

black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blonde,

would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let

me straighten? When they saw my light-blue eyes, they would

understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or

spoken the language like they did, and why I had to be forced to

eat pigs’ tails. Because I was really white and a cruel magician had

turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with kinky black hair, broad

feet, and a space between her teeth that would hold a pencil.

“What you looking …” The minister’s wife leaned toward

me, her long yellow face full of sorry. I held up two fingers, close

to my chest, which meant that I had to go to the toilet, and

walked quietly toward the back of the church. My head was up

and my eyes were open, but I didn’t see anything. Before I

reached the door, the sting was burning down my legs and into

my Sunday socks. I tried to hold it, to squeeze it back, to keep it

from spreading, but when I reached the church porch I knew I’d

have to let it go. If I didn’t, it would probably run right back up

to my head and my poor head would burst, and all the brains and

spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place. So, I ran

down into the yard and let it go. I ran, peeing and crying, not

toward the toilet out back but to our house. I’d get a whipping

for it, and the nasty children would have a reason to laugh at me.

I laughed anyway, partly for the sweet release; the greater joy

came not only from being set free from the silly church but from

the knowledge that I wouldn’t die from a burst head.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being

aware of her difference is worse. It is an unnecessary insult.


Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. []. Retrieved from