For nearly a year I went around the house, the Store, the school,
and the church without talking and keeping to myself. Then I
met, or got to know, the lady who threw me my first lifeline.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers was the upper-class woman o f Black
Stamps. She had the grace to appear warm in the coldest weather,
and on the hot Arkansas summer, days she seemed cool. She was
thin, and her printed dresses and flowered hats were as right for her
as jeans for a farmer. Her skin was dark black. She wore gloves, too.
She was our side of town’s example of the richest woman in town.
I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled
often. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank
her. The action was so graceful and kind.
She was one o f the few real ladies I have ever known, and
has remained throughout my life the measure o f what a human
being can be.
Momma had a strange relationship with her. Most often when
Mrs. Flowers passed on the road in front o f the Store, she spoke
to Momma in her soft voice: “Good day, Mrs. Henderson.”
Momma responded with: “How you, Sister Flowers?”
Mrs. Flowers didn’t belong to our church, nor was she
Momma’s good friend. Why did she insist on calling her Sister
Flowers? Shame made me want to hide my face. Mrs. Flowers
deserved better than to be called Sister. Then, Momma left out
the verb. Why not ask, “How are you, Mrs. Flowers?” I hated her
for showing her ignorance to Mrs. Flowers. It didn’t occur to me
for many years that they were as alike as sisters, separated only by
Although I was upset, neither o f the women was at all bothered
by what I thought was an impolite greeting. Mrs. Flowers
would continue her walk up the hill to her little house, and
Momma kept on doing whatever had brought her to the front
Occasionally, though, Mrs. Flowers would wander off the road
and down to the Store and Momma would say to me, “Sister, you
go on and play.” As I left I would hear the beginning o f a private
conversation, Momma continuing to use the wrong verb, or
none at all. But they talked, and from the side o f the building
where I waited, I heard their voices mixing together. They were
interrupted from time to time by giggles that must have come
from Mrs. Flowers (Momma never giggled in her life).Then she
She attracted me because she was like people I had never met
personally. Like women in English novels who walked with their
dogs. Like the women who sat in front o f fireplaces, drinking tea
and eating cookies. It would be safe to say that she made me
proud to be Negro, just by being herself.
She acted just as well-mannered and civilized as whitefolks in
the movies and books, and she was more beautiful. None o f them
could have come near that warm color without looking gray by
One summer afternoon, still fresh in my memory, she stopped
at the Store to buy groceries. Another Negro woman o f her
health and age would have been expected to carry the paper
sacks home in one hand, but Momma said, “Sister Flowers, I’ll
send Bailey up to your house with these things.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. I’d prefer Marguerite,
though.” My name was beautiful when she said it. “I’ve been
meaning to talk to her, anyway.”
Momma said, “Well, that’s all right then. Sister, go and change
your dress. You’re going with Sister Flowers.”
What did one put on to go to Mrs. Flowers’ house? I knew I
shouldn’t put on a Sunday dress. It wouldn’t be right. Certainly
not a house dress, since I was already wearing a clean one. I chose
a school dress, naturally. It was formal without suggesting that
going to Mrs. Flowers’ house was the same as attending church.
I walked back into the Store.
“Now, don’t you look nice.” I had chosen the right dress.
“Mrs. Henderson, you make most o f the children’s clothes,
“Yes, ma’am. Sure do. Store-bought clothes ain’t hardly worth
the thread it takes to stitch them.” .
“You do a beautiful job, though, so neat. That dress looks
Momma was enjoying the seldom-received praise. Since
everyone we knew (except Mrs. Flowers, o f course) could sew
well, praise was rarely handed out for the commonly practiced
“I try, with the help of the Lord, Sister Flowers, to finish the
inside just like I do the outside. Come here, Sister.”
She made me take off the dress. As they talked, I wouldn’t
look at either o f them. Momma hadn’t thought that taking off
my dress in front o f Mrs. Flowers would make me feel like dying.
Mrs. Flowers, though, had known that I would be embarrassed
and that was even worse. When Momma told me to, I put the
dress back on, picked up the groceries, and went out to wait in
the hot sunshine. It would be appropriate if I died before they
came outside. Just dropped dead on the porch.
There was a little path beside the rocky road, and Mrs. Flowers
walked in front, swinging her arms. She said, without turning her
head, to me, “I hear you’re doing very good school work,
Marguerite, but that it’s all written. The teachers report that they
have trouble getting you to talk in class.” The path widened to
allow us to walk together, but I stayed behind.
“Come and walk along with me, Marguerite.” I couldn’t have
refused even if I wanted to. She pronounced my name so nicely.
“Now, no one is going to make you talk—possibly no one
can. But remember, language is man’s way o f communication
with other people and it is language alone which separates him
from the lower animals.” That was a totally new idea to me, and I
would need time to think about it.
“Your grandmother says you read a lot. That’s good, but not
good enough. Words mean more than what is written on paper.
They need the human voice to give them deeper meaning.”
I memorized the part about the human voice giving meaning
to words. It seemed so true and poetic.
She said she was going to give me some books and that I not
only must read them, I must read them aloud. She suggested that I
try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible.
“I’ll accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been
badly handled.” I couldn’t imagine the punishment I would
deserve if in fact I did abuse a book of Mrs. Flowers’. Death
would be too kind and brief.
The smells in the house surprised me. Somehow I had never
connected Mrs. Flowers with food or eating or any other
common experience o f ordinary people.
“I made cookies this morning. I had planned to invite you for
cookies and lemonade so we could have this little chat.”
She took the bags from me and disappeared through the
kitchen door. I looked around the room that I had never in my
wildest dreams imagined I would see.
“Have a seat, Marguerite. Over there by the table.” She carried
a plate covered with a small towel. I was certain that everything
about her cookies would be perfect.
Remembering my manners, I took nice little lady-like bites
off the edges. She said she had made them especially for me and
that she had a few in the kitchen that I could take home to my
brother. It was a dream come true.
As I ate she began the first o f what we later called “my lessons
in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant o f ignorance
but understanding o f a lack o f knowledge. That some people,
unable to go to school, were more educated and even more
intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen
carefully to country people’s sayings. In those sayings was wisdom
collected through the years.
When I finished the cookies, she brushed off the table and
brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. I had read A Tale
of Two Cities, and it met my standards as a romantic novel.
She began to read. The way her voice said the words was
nearly singing. When she finished reading, I hadn’t really heard,
heard to understand, a single word.
“How do you like that?”
It occurred to me that she expected a response. I had to speak.
I said, “Yes, ma’am.” It was the least I could do, but it was the
“There’s one more thing. Take this book o f poems and
memorize one for me. Next time you visit, I want you to say it
On that first day, I ran down the hill and into the road and had
the good sense to stop running before I reached the Store.
I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not
as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just
being Marguerite Johnson. I didn’t question why Mrs. Flowers
had chosen me to give her attention to, nor did I realize that
Momma might have asked her to talk to me. All I cared about
was that she had made cookies for me and read to me from her
favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me.
Negro girls in small Southern towns were given as thorough and
irrelevant preparations for adulthood as rich white girls shown in
magazines. Admittedly the training was not the same. While white
girls learned to dance and sit gracefully with a teacup balanced on
their knees, we learned to sew designs on dishtowels, pillowcases,
and handkerchiefs. It was understood that all girls could iron and
wash, but the more skilled tasks around the home, like setting a
table, baking meat, and cooking vegetables without meat, had to be
learned elsewhere. Usually at the source of those habits. During
my tenth year, a white woman’s kitchen became my school.
Mrs. Viola Cullinan was a fat woman who lived in a threebedroom
house. She was unattractive until she smiled. Then the
lines around her eyes and mouth disappeared, and her face
looked friendly. She usually saved her smile until late afternoon
when her woman friends dropped in and Miss Glory, the cook,
served them cold drinks on the closed-in porch.
Miss Glory was very patient with me. She explained the
different kinds o f dishes. It took me a week to learn the
difference between a salad plate, a bread plate, and a dessert plate.
There were ice-cream glasses, wine glasses, green glass coffee
cups with matching saucers, and water glasses. I was fascinated
with them, with Mrs. Cullinan and her wonderful house.
On our way home one evening, Miss Glory told me that Mrs.
Cullinan couldn’t have children. She said that the doctor had
taken out all her lady parts. If Mrs. Cullinan was walking around
without those essentials, it explained why she drank alcohol out
o f unmarked bottles. I felt pity for her. Mrs. Cullinan didn’t know
what she missed. Or maybe she did. Poor Mrs. Cullinan.
For weeks I arrived early, left late, and tried very hard to make
up for her childlessness. If she had had her own children, she
wouldn’t have had to ask me to run a thousand errands from her
back door to the back doors o f her friends. Poor old Mrs.
Then one evening Miss Glory told me to serve the ladies on
the porch. After I set the plate down and turned toward the
kitchen, one of the woman asked, “What’s your name, girl?”
Mrs. Cullinan said, “She doesn’t talk much. Her name’s
Margaret. As I understand it, she can talk when she wants to but
she’s usually quiet as a little mouse. Aren’t you, Margaret?”
I smiled at her. Poor thing. No lady parts and she couldn’t
even pronounce my name correctly
“She’s a sweet little thing, though.”
“Well, that may be, but the name’s too long. I’d never bother
myself. I’d call her Mary if I was you.”
I was angry all the way to the kitchen. That terrible woman
would never have the chance to call me Mary because if I was
starving I’d never work for her. Giggles came in off the porch. I
wondered what they could be laughing about.
Whitefolks were so strange. Could they be talking about me?
Everybody knew that they shared more information than Negroes
did. It was possible that Mrs. Cullinan had friends in St. Louis
who heard about a girl from Stamps being in court and wrote to
tell her. Maybe she knew about Mr. Freeman.
I felt sick, and Miss Glory told me to go home. I realized how
foolish I was being before I got there. O f course Mrs. Cullinan
didn’t know. Otherwise she wouldn’t have given me the two nice
dresses that Momma cut down, and she certainly wouldn’t have
called me a “sweet little thing.” My stomach felt fine, and I didn’t
mention anything to Momma.
That evening I decided to write a poem about being white,
fat, old, and without children. It was going to be a tragic poem. I
would have to watch her carefully to capture her loneliness and
The next day, she called me by the wrong name. Miss Glory
and I were washing the lunch dishes when Mrs. Cullinan came
to the doorway. “Mary?”
Miss Glory asked, “Who?”
Mrs. Cullinan knew and I knew “I want Mary to go down to
Mrs. Randall’s and take her some soup. She’s not been feeling
well for a few days.”
Miss Glory’s face was a wonder to see. “You mean Margaret,
ma’am. Her name’s Margaret.”
“That’s too long. She’s Mary now. Heat that soup from last
night and put it in the large bowl. Mary, I want you to carry it
Every person I knew had a horror o f being “called out of his
name.” Miss Glory felt sorry for me for a second. Then, as she
handed me the soup bowl, she said, “Don’t you mind, don’t pay
attention to that. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but
words will never hurt you. You know, I’ve been working for her
for twenty years.”
She held the back door open for me. “Twenty years. I wasn’t
much older than you. My name used to be Hallelujah. Thats
what my momma named me, but my boss gave me ‘Glory,’ and it
stuck. I like it better, too.”
I was in the little path that ran behind the houses when Miss
Glory shouted, “It’s shorter too.”
For a few seconds I wasn’t sure whether I would laugh
(imagine being named Hallelujah) ‘or cry (imagine letting some
white woman rename you for her convenience). I had to leave
the job, but the problem was going to be how to do it. Momma
wouldn’t allow me to leave for just any reason.
For a week, I looked into Mrs. Cullinan’s face as she called me
Mary. She ignored my coming late and leaving early. Miss Glory
was a little annoyed because I had begun to leave egg on the
dishes. I hoped that she would complain to our boss, but she
Then Bailey solved my problem. He had me describe the
contents o f her cupboard and the particular plates she liked best.
I kept his instructions in mind. On the next day when Miss
Glory was hanging out clothes and I had again been told to serve
the old ladies on the porch, I dropped the empty serving plate.
When I heard Mrs. Cullinan scream, “Mary!” I picked up her
favorite dish and two o f the green glass cups in readiness. As she
entered the kitchen door, I let them fall on the floor.
She crawled around the floor and picked up pieces o f the cups
and cried, “Oh, Momma. Oh, dear God. It’s Momma’s dishes
from Virginia. Oh, Momma, I’m sorry.”
Miss Glory came running in from the yard and the women
from the porch crowded around. Miss Glory was almost as upset
as her boss. “You mean to say she broke our Virginia dishes?
What are we gonna do?”
Mrs. Cullinan cried louder, “That clumsy nigger. Clumsy little
The old woman who had first named me Mary leaned
down and asked, “Who did it, Viola? Was it Mary? Who did it?”
Everything was happening so fast I can’t remember whether
her action or her words came first, but I know that Mrs. Cullinan
said, “Her name’s Margaret, damn it, her name’s Margaret.” And
she threw a piece o f the broken plate at me.
I left the door wide open so all the neighbors could hear.
Mrs. Cullinan was right about one thing. My name wasn’t
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