When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the dusty 2
little town, wearing notes on our wrists which stated—“To
Whom It May Concern”—that we were Marguerite and Bailey
Johnson Jr.,* from Long Beach, California, on our way to
Stamps, Arkansas, to Mrs. Annie Henderson.
Our parents had decided to put an end to their disastrous
marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. The
conductor on the train had been asked to take care o f us, and our
tickets were pinned to my brother’s inside coat pocket.
I don’t remember much o f the trip, but after we reached the
segregated southern part o f the journey, things must have
improved. Negro passengers, who always traveled with full lunch
boxes, felt sorry for “the poor little motherless darlings” and gave
us lots o f cold fried chicken and potato salad.
The town reacted to us as its residents had reacted to all things
new before our arrival. It regarded us for a while without
curiosity but cautiously, and after we were seen to be harmless
(and children) it closed in around us, as a real mother welcomes a
stranger’s child. Warmly, but not affectionately.
We lived with our grandmother and uncle in the back o f the
Store (it was always spoken o f w ith a capital S), which she had
owned for around twenty-five years.
Early in the century, Momma (we soon stopped calling her
Grandmother) sold lunches to laborers in the two factories in
Stamps. Her delicious meat pies and cool lemonade made her
business a success. At first she went to the factories. Later she set
up a stand between them and supplied the workers’ needs for a
few years. Then she had the Store built in the heart o f the Negro
area. There customers could find basic foods, a good variety o f
colored thread, pig food, corn for chickens, coal oil for lamps,
light bulbs for the wealthy, shoestrings, balloons, and flower seeds.
Anything not visible could be ordered.
* Jr.: short for Junior
When Bailey was six and I a year younger, we could repeat the
multiplication tables extraordinarily quickly Uncle Willie used to
sit, like a huge black Z (he had been crippled as a child), and
listen to us. His face pulled down on the left side, and his left
hand was only a little bigger than Bailey s.
Momma related countless times, and without any show of
emotion, how Uncle Willie had been dropped when he was
three years old by a woman who was taking care o f him. She
seemed to hold no anger against the baby-sitter, nor for her God
who allowed the accident. She felt it necessary to explain over
and over again to those who knew the story by heart that he
wasn’t “born that way.”
In our society, where two-legged, two-armed strong Black
men were able at best to earn enough for only the necessities of
life, Uncle Willie was the subject of jokes of the underemployed
and underpaid. He was proud and sensitive, so he couldn’t
pretend that he wasn’t crippled; nor could he pretend that people
were not disgusted by his body.
Only once in all the years o f trying not to watch him, I saw
him pretend to himself and others that he wasn’t crippled.
Coming home from school one day, I saw a dark car in our
front yard. I rushed in and found a strange man and woman
drinking Dr. Pepper in the cool o f the Store. I sensed a
wrongness around me.
I knew it couldn’t be the strangers. When I looked at Uncle
Willie, I knew what was happening. He was standing erect
behind the counter, not leaning forward or resting on the small
shelf that had been built for him. His eyes seemed to hold me
with a mixture o f threats and appeal.
I dutifully greeted the strangers and my eyes wandered around
looking for his walking stick. It was nowhere to be seen. He said,
“T h is . . . th is. . . my niece. She’s .. .just come from school. You
k n ow … h ow … children are . . . th-th-these days. . . they play
all d-d-day at school and c-c-can’t wait to get home and pl-play
The people smiled, very friendly.
He added, “Go on out and pl-play, Sister.”
The lady laughed and said, “Well, you know, Mr. Johnson, they
say you’re only a child once. Have you any children of your own?”
Before I left, I saw him lean back on the shelves o f chewing
tobacco. “No, ma’am . . . no ch-children and no wife.” He tried a
laugh. “I have an old m-m-mother and my brother’s t-two
children to 1-look after.”
I didn’t mind him using us to make himself look good. In fact,
I would have pretended to be his daughter if he wanted me to.
Not only did I not feel any loyalty to my own father, I figured
that if I had been Uncle Willy’s child, I would have received
much better treatment.
The couple left after a few minutes, and Uncle Willie made
his way between the shelves and the counter—hand over hand.
From the back o f the house, I watched him move awkwardly
from one side, bumping into the other, until he reached the coaloil
tank. He put his hand behind it and took his walking stick in
his strong fist and shifted his weight on the wooden support. He
thought he had succeeded in his pretense.
I’ll never know why it was important to him that the couple
would take a picture o f a whole Mr. Johnson home with them.
He must have tired o f being a cripple, tired o f the high-topped
shoes and the walking stick, his uncontrollable muscles and thick
tongue, and the looks o f pity he suffered. For one afternoon, one
part o f an afternoon, he wanted to be rid o f them.
I understood, and felt closer to him in that moment than ever
before or since.
During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William
Shakespeare. He was my first white love. Although I enjoyed and
respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray, and Henley, I saved my
young and loyal love for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston
Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, andW.E.B. Du Bois’s “Litany at
Atlanta.” But it was Shakespeare who said, “When in disgrace
with fortune and mens eyes.” It was a state with which I felt
myself most familiar. I accepted his whiteness by telling myself
that he had been dead for so long it couldn’t matter to anyone
Bailey and I decided to memorize a scene from The Merchant
of Venice, but we realized that Momma would question us about
the author and that we’d have to tell her that Shakespeare was
white, and it wouldn’t matter to her whether he was dead or not.
So we chose “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson instead.
Weighing the half-pounds o f flour and putting them dust-free
into the thin paper sacks was a simple kind o f adventure for me. I
developed an eye for measuring how full a container o f flour,
sugar, or corn had to be to push the scale indicator over to eight
ounces or one pound. When I was absolutely accurate, our
appreciative customers used to praise me: “Sister Henderson sure
got some smart grandchildren.” If I made a mistake in the Store’s
favor, the eagle-eyed women would say, “Put some more in that
sack, child. Don’t you try to make your profit off me.”
Then I would quietly punish myself. For every bad judgment,
the fine was no silver-wrapped Kisses, the sweet chocolate candy
that I loved more than anything in the world, except Bailey. And
maybe canned pineapples. My love o f them nearly drove me
mad. I dreamt of the days when I would be grown and able to
buy a whole carton for myself alone.
Although the sweet golden rings sat in their cans on our
shelves all year, we only tasted them during Christmas. Momma
used the juice to make almost-black fruit cakes. Then she lined
heavy iron pans with the pineapple rings for rich upside-down
cakes. Bailey and I received one slice each, and I carried mine
around for hours, picking off small pieces o f the fruit until
nothing was left except the perfume on my fingers. I’d like to
think that my desire for pineapples was so special that I wouldn’t
allow myself to steal a can (which was possible) and eat it alone
out in the garden. But I’m certain that I must have considered
the possibility that others would notice the smell on my fingers,
and didn’t dare to attempt it.
Until I was thirteen and left Arkansas for ever, the Store was
my favorite place to be. Alone and empty in the mornings, it
looked like an unopened present from a stranger. Opening the
front doors was pulling the ribbon off an unexpected gift. The
light would come in softly (we faced north), slowly moving over
the shelves o f canned fish, tobacco, thread. Whenever I walked
into the Store in the afternoon, I sensed that it was tired. Only I
could hear the slow heartbeat o f its job half done. But just before
bedtime, after numerous people had walked in and out, had
argued over their bills, or joked about their neighbors, or just
dropped in to say hello, the promise o f magic mornings returned
to the Store.
Momma opened boxes o f crackers and we sat around the meat
block at the back o f the Store. I sliced onions, and Bailey opened
two or even three cans o f fish. That was supper. In the evening,
when we were alone like that, Uncle Willie didn’t stutter or
shake or give any indication that he had a problem. It seemed
that the peace o f a day’s ending was an assurance that the
understanding God had with children, Negroes, and the crippled
was still good.
Throwing handfuls of corn to the chickens and mixing leftover
food and oily dish water for the pigs were among our evening
chores. Bailey and I walked down the trails to the pig yard, and
standing on the fence we poured the unappealing mess down to
our grateful pigs.
Late one day, as we were feeding the pigs, I heard a horse in
the front yard (it really should have been called a driveway, except
that there was nothing to drive into it), and ran to find out
who had come riding up on a Thursday evening. The used-to-be
sheriff sat on his horse in such a way that his attitude was meant
to show his authority and power over even dumb animals. How
much more authority he would have over Negroes. Nothing
needed to be said.
From the side o f the Store, Bailey and I heard him say to
Momma, “Annie, tell Willie he’d better stay out o f sight tonight.
A crazy nigger* assaulted a white lady today. Some o f the boys’ll
be coming over here later.” Even now, I remember the sense of
fear which filled my mouth with hot, dry air, and made my body
The “boys”? Those cement faces and eyes o f hate that burned
the clothes off you if they saw you standing around on the main
street downtown on Saturday. Boys? It seemed that youth had
never happened to them. Boys? No, men filled with the ugliness
and rottenness of old hatreds.
The used-to-be sheriff was confident that my uncle and every
other Black man who heard o f the Klan’s t planned ride would
quickly go under their houses to hide with the chickens.
Without waiting for Momma’s thanks, he rode out o f the yard,
sure that things were as they should be and that he was a gentle
* nigger: an offensive word for a Negro, or Black person.
“I” the Klan: the Ku Klux Klan, an organization of white people who commit
hate crimes against Black people.
master, saving those deserving servants from the law o f the land,
which he supported.
Immediately, Momma blew out the coal-oil lamps. She had a
quiet talk with Uncle Willie and called Bailey and me into the
We were told to take the potatoes and onions out o f their
containers and knock out the dividing walls that kept them apart.
Then, with a fearful slowness, Uncle bent down to get into the
empty space. It took for ever before he lay down flat, and then we
covered him with potatoes and onions, layer upon layer.
Grandmother knelt praying in the darkened Store.
It was fortunate that the “boys” didn’t ride into our yard that
evening and insist that Momma open the Store. They would have
surely found Uncle Willie and just as surely killed him. He cried
the whole night as if he had, in fact, been guilty o f some awful
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