Angelou: Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Momma

“You shall not be dirty” and “You shall not be impudent” were

the two commandments o f Grandmother Henderson by which

we lived.

Each night in the bitterest winter we were forced to wash

faces, arms, necks, legs, and feet before going to bed. We would

go to the well and wash in the ice-cold, clear water, grease our

legs, then walk carefully into the house. We wiped the dust from

our toes and settled down for schoolwork, cornbread, milk,

prayers, and bed, always in that order. Momma was famous for

pulling the blankets off after we had fallen asleep to examine our

feet. If they weren’t clean enough for her, she took the stick (she

kept one behind the door for emergencies) and woke up the

offender with a few well-placed burning reminders. She made

sure we learned the importance o f cleanliness.

Politeness was also important. The impudent child was hated

by God and a shame to its parents and could bring ruin to its

house and family. All adults had to be addressed as Mister, Missus,

or Miss. Everyone I knew respected these customary laws, except

for the poor-white-trash children.

Some families o f “poor white trash” lived on Momma’s farm

land behind the school. Sometimes a group of them came to the

Store. They called my uncle by his first name and ordered him

around the Store. He, to my shame, obeyed them.

My grandmother, too, followed their orders, except that she

didn’t seem like a servant because she anticipated their needs.

“Here’s sugar, Miss Potter, and here’s baking powder. You

didn’t buy baking soda last month, you’ll probably be needing

some.”

Momma always directed her statements to the adults, but

sometimes the dirty girls would answer her.

“No, Annie. . . ” they said. To Momma, who owned the land

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they lived on? Who forgot more than they would ever learn?

“Just give us some extra crackers, and some more fish.”

At least they never looked her in the face, or I never caught

them doing so. Nobody with any training at all would look right

in a grown person’s face. It meant the person was trying to take

the words out before they were formed. The dirty little children

didn’t do that, but they threw their orders around the Store like

strikes o f a whip.

When I was around ten years old, those children caused me

the most painful and confusing experience I had ever had with

my grandmother.

One summer morning, after I had swept the dirt yard o f

leaves, gum wrappers, and Vienna-sausage can labels, I swept the

yellow dirt, and made half-moons carefully, so that the design was

clear. Then I went behind the Store, came through the back o f

the house, and found Grandmother on the front porch in her

big, white apron. Momma was admiring the yard, so I joined her.

She didn’t say anything, but I knew she liked it. She looked over

toward the school principal’s house and to the right at Mr.

McElroy s. She was hoping one o f those important people would

see the design before the day’s business wiped it out. Then she

looked upward to the school. My head had swung with hers, so

at just about the same time we saw a group of poor-white-trash

kids marching over the hill and down by the side o f the school.

I looked at Momma for direction. She stood straight and

began to sing quietly. She didn’t look at me again. When the

children reached halfway down the hill, halfway to the Store, she

said without turning, “Sister, go on inside.”

I wanted to beg her, “Momma, don’t wait for them. Come on

inside with me. If they come in the Store, you go to the bedroom

and let me serve them. They only frighten me if you’re around.

Alone, I know how to handle them.” But of course I couldn’t say

anything, so I went in and stood behind the screen door.

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Before the girls got to the porch I heard their laughter. I

suppose my life-long distrust was born in those cold, slow

minutes. They finally came to stand on the ground in front of

Momma. One of them folded her arms, pushed out her mouth,

and started to sing quietly. I realized that she was imitating my

grandmother. Another said, “No, Helen, you ain’t standing like

her. This is it.” Then she lifted her chest and folded her arms,

copying that strange way o f standing that was Annie Henderson.

Another laughed, “No, you can’t do it. Your mouth ain’t pushed

out enough. It’s like this.”

I thought about the rifle behind the door, but I knew I’d never

be able to hold it straight, and our other gun was locked in the

trunk, and Uncle Willie had the key on his chain. Through the

screen door, I could see that the arms of Momma’s apron shook

with her singing. But her knees seemed to have locked as if they

would never bend again.

She sang on. No louder than before, but no softer either. No

slower or faster.

The girls had tired o f imitating Momma and turned to other

ways to make her respond. One crossed her eyes, stuck her

thumbs in both sides o f her mouth, and said, “Look here, Annie.”

Grandmother sang on, and the apron strings trembled. I wanted

to throw a handful of black pepper in their faces, to scream that

they were dirty, but I knew I couldn’t do anything.

One o f the smaller girls did a kind o f dance while the others

laughed at her. But the tall one, who was almost a woman, said

something very quietly, which I couldn’t hear. They all moved

backward from the porch, still watching Momma. For an awful

second I thought they were going to throw a rock at Momma,

who seemed (except for the apron strings) to have turned into

stone herself. But the big girl turned her back, bent down, and

put her hands flat on the ground. She didn’t pick up anything—

she just did a handstand.

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Her dirty bare feet and long legs went straight for the sky. Her

dress fell down around her shoulders, and she had on no

underpants. She hung like that for only a few seconds, then fell.

Momma changed her song to a religious song. I found that I

was praying too. How long could Momma continue? What

would they think o f to do to her next? Would I be able to stay

out o f it? What would Momma really like me to do?

Then they were moving out o f the yard, on their way to town.

They nodded their heads and shook their thin behinds and

turned, one at a time.

“Bye, Annie.”

“Bye, Annie”

“Bye, Annie.”

Momma never turned her head or unfolded her arms, but she

stopped singing and said, “Bye, Miss Helen, bye, Miss Ruth, bye,

Miss Eloise.”

I burst. How could Momma call them Miss? The mean nasty

things. Why couldn’t she have come inside the sweet, cool store

when we saw them coming over the hill? What did she prove?

And then, if they were dirty, mean, and impudent, why did

Momma have to call them Miss?

She stood there for another whole song and then opened the

screen door to look down on me crying in anger. She looked

until I looked up. Her face was a brown moon that shone on me.

She was beautiful. Something had happened out there, which I

couldn’t completely understand, but I could see that she was

happy. Then she bent down and touched me, and I grew quiet.

“Go wash your face, Sister.” And she went behind the candy

counter and sang, “Glory, glory, praise the Lord.”

I threw the well water on my face and used the weekly

handkerchief to blow my nose. Whatever the contest had been, I

knew Momma had won.

I went back to the front yard. The footprints were easy to

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sweep away. I worked for a long time on my new design. When I

came back in the Store, I took Mommas hand and we both

walked outside to look at the new pattern.

It was a large heart with lots o f hearts growing smaller inside,

and going from the outside edge to the smallest heart was an

arrow. Momma said, “Sister, that’s very pretty.” Then she turned

back to the Store and continued, “Glory, glory, praise the Lord,

when I lay my burden down.”

People spoke o f Momma as a good-looking woman, and some,

who remembered her youth, said she used to be very pretty. I saw

only her power and strength. She was taller than any woman in

my personal world, and her hands were so large they could reach

around my head from ear to ear. Her voice was soft only because

she chose to keep it so. In church, when she was asked to lead the

singing, the sound would pour over the listeners and fill the air.

Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of

life that she and people of her age and all the Negroes gone

before had found, and found to be safe ones. She didn’t agree with

the idea that whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking

ones life.And certainly they couldn’t be spoken to impudently. In

fact, even in their absence they could not be spoken of too badly

unless we used the reference “They.” If she had been asked and

had chosen to answer the question of whether she was cowardly

or not, she would have said that she believed in reality. Didn’t she

stand up to “them” year after year? Wasn’t she the only Negro

woman in Stamps referred to once as Mrs.?

Some years before Bailey and I arrived in town, a man was

hunted for assaulting a white woman. In trying to escape he ran

to the Store. Momma and Uncle Willie hid him behind the

dresser until night, gave him supplies for an overland journey, and

sent him on his way. He was, however, caught, and in court when

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he was questioned about his movements on the day of the crime,

he replied that after he heard that he was being sought he hid in

Mrs. Henderson’s Store.

The judge asked that Mrs. Henderson appear in court, and

when Momma arrived and said she was Mrs. Henderson, the

judge and other whites in the audience laughed. The judge had

really made a mistake calling a Negro woman “Mrs.,” but he was

from Pine Bluff and couldn’t have been expected to know that a

woman who owned a store in the village would also be colored.

The whites laughed about the incident for a long time, and the

Negroes thought it proved the worth and honor o f my

grandmother.

People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so

prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy white ice cream. Except on

July Fourth. Other days he had to be satisfied with chocolate.

A curtain had been drawn between the Black community and

all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop

fear, admiration, and contempt for the white “things”—

whitefolks’ cars and white houses and their children and their

women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste

was the most enviable. They had so many clothes that they were

able to give away perfectly good dresses, faded just under the

arms, to the sewing class at our school for the larger girls to

practice on.

I couldn’t understand whites and where they got the right to

spend money so freely. O f course, I knew God was white too, but

no one could have made me believe he was prejudiced. My

grandmother had more money than all the poor white trash. We

owned land and houses, but each day Bailey and I were

reminded, “Waste not, want not.”

Momma bought two rolls o f cloth each year for winter and

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summer clothes. She made my school dresses and handkerchiefs,

Bailey’s shirts and shorts, her aprons and house dresses from these.

Uncle Willie was the only person in the family who wore readyto-

wear clothes all the time. Each day he wore fresh white shirts,

and his special shoes cost twenty dollars. I thought Uncle Willie

was sinfully proud, especially when I had to iron seven shirts.

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