Angelou: Chapter 2

Chapter 2: The Store

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

3

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,

4

“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

some more.”

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.

5

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

anymore.

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

6

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.

7

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

light.

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

Store.

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

crime.

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