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
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. [http://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_-_Full_Text_PDF]. Retrieved from