Angelou: Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Two Women

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.

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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

formal education.

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

porch.

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

was gone.

She attracted me because she was like people I had never met

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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

comparison.

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,

don’t you?”

“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

professional.”

Momma was enjoying the seldom-received praise. Since

everyone we knew (except Mrs. Flowers, o f course) could sew

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well, praise was rarely handed out for the commonly practiced

skill.

“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.

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“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?”

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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

most also.

“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

for me.”

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.

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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.

Cullinan.

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?

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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

pain.

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

carefully.”

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

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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

didn’t.

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

black nigger.”

The old woman who had first named me Mary leaned

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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

Mary.

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