Angelou: Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Life in Stamps

The difference between a Southern town and a Northern town

must be the experiences o f childhood. Heroes and enemies are

first met, and values and dislikes are first learned and labeled in

that early environment.

Mr. McElroy, who lived in the big house next to the Store, was

very tall and broad. He was the only Negro I knew, except for

the school principal and the visiting teachers, who wore

matching pants and jacket. He never laughed, seldom smiled, and

he liked to talk to Uncle Willie. He never went to church, which

Bailey and I thought also proved he was a very courageous

person. How great it would be to grow up like that, to be able to

ignore religion, especially living next door to a woman like

Momma.

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I watched him with the excitement o f expecting him to do

anything at any time. I never tired o f this, or became disappointed

with him. There seemed to be an understanding between Mr.

McElroy and Grandmother. This was obvious to us because he

never chased us off his land. In summer’s late sunshine I often sat

under the tree in his yard, surrounded by the bitter smell o f its

fruit and the sound o f flies that fed on the berries. He sat in a

swing on his porch, rocking in his brown three-piece suit.

One greeting a day was all that could be expected from Mr.

McElroy. After his “Good morning, child,” or “Good afternoon,

child,” he never said a word, even if I met him again on the road

in front of his house or down by the well, or ran into him behind

the house, escaping in a game o f hide-and-seek.

He remained a mystery in my childhood. A man who owned

his land and the big many-windowed house with a porch that

went all around the house. An independent Black man. A rare

occurrence in Stamps.

Bailey was the greatest person in my world. And the fact that he

was my brother, my only brother, and I had no sisters to share

him with, was such good fortune that it made me want to live a

Christian life just to show God that I was grateful. I was big,

elbowy, and rough, but he was small, graceful, and smooth. I was

described by our friends as being brown, but he was praised for

his dark black skin. His hair fell down in black curls, and my head

was covered with tight, kinky curls. But he loved me.

When adults said unkind things about my features (my family’s

good looks were painful to me), Bailey would look at me from

across the room, and I knew that it was just a matter o f time

before he would take revenge. He would allow the old ladies to

finish wondering where my features came from, then he would

ask, in a voice like cooling bacon grease, “Oh, Mrs. Coleman,

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how is your son? I saw him the other day, and he looked sick

enough to die.”

Astonished, the ladies would ask, “Die? From what? He ain’t

sick.”

And in a voice oilier than the one before, he’d answer with no

expression on his face, “From the Uglies.”

I would hold my laugh, bite my tongue, and very seriously

remove even the slightest smile from my face. Later, behind the

house, we’d laugh and laugh.

Bailey could be sure o f very few punishments for his frequent

offensive behavior, because he was the pride of the Henderson—

Johnson family.

His movements were carefully calculated. He was also able to

find more hours in the day than I thought existed. He finished

his chores and homework, read more books than I, and played

games on the side o f the hill with the other children. He could

even pray out loud in church, and was skilled at stealing candy

from the barrel that sat under the fruit counter and Uncle

Willie’s nose.

O f all the needs (there are none imaginary) a lonely child has,

the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a

hope o f wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God.

My pretty Black brother was mine.

In Stamps the custom was to can everything that could possibly

be preserved. All the neighbors helped each other to kill pigs.

The ladies o f the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church helped

Momma prepare the pork for sausage. They squeezed their fat

arms elbow deep in the cut-up meat, mixed it, and gave a small

taste to all obedient children who brought wood for the black

stove. The men cut off the larger pieces o f meat and laid them in

the smokehouse to begin the preservation process.

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Throughout the year, until the next frost, we took our meals

from the smokehouse, the little garden close to the Store, and the

shelves o f canned foods. But at least twice yearly Momma would

feel that as children we should have fresh meat included in our

diets. We were then given money—pennies, nickels, and

dimes handed to Bailey—and sent to town to buy some. Since

the whites had refrigerators, their stores brought meat from

Texarkana and sold it to the wealthy even in the peak o f

summer.

Crossing the Black area o f Stamps, which to a child seemed a

whole world, we were expected to stop and speak to every

person we met, and Bailey felt he had to spend a few minutes

playing with each friend. There was a joy in going to town with

money in our pockets (Bailey’s pockets were as good as my own)

and plenty o f time. But the pleasure left us when we reached the

white part o f town.

In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black

children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like.

We knew only that they were different, to be feared, and in

that fear was included the hostility o f the powerless against the

powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the

employer, and the poorly dressed against the well dressed.

I remember never believing that whites were really real. I

couldn’t force myself to think o f them as people. People were

Mrs. LaGrone, Mrs. Hendricks, Momma, Lillie B, and Louise

and Rex. Whitefolks couldn’t be people because their feet

were too small, their skin too white, and they didn’t walk on

their flat feet the way people did—they walked on their heels

like horses.

People were those who lived on my side o f town. I didn’t like

them all, or, in fact, any o f them very much, but they were

people. These other strange pale creatures weren’t considered

folks. They were whitefolks.

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