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
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,
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
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—
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
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.
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
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
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