“You shall not be dirty” and “You shall not be impudent” were
the two commandments o f Grandmother Henderson by which
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Momma never turned her head or unfolded her arms, but she
stopped singing and said, “Bye, Miss Helen, bye, Miss Ruth, bye,
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
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
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
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
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
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