Weekdays were the same. Saturdays, however, always dared to be
different. After our return from St. Louis, Momma gave us a little
cash weekly. I usually gave my money to Bailey, who went to the
movies almost every Saturday. He brought back cowboy books
One Saturday Bailey was late returning. Momma had begun
heating water for the Saturday-night baths, and all the evening
chores were done. It was quite late.
Uncle Willie said, “Sister, turn on the light.” On Saturdays we
used the electric lights so that last-minute shoppers could look
down the hill and see if the Store was open. Momma hadn’t told
me to turn them on because she didn’t want to believe that it was
night and Bailey was still out in the dark. Her anxiety was
obvious in her hurried movements around the kitchen and in her
lonely fearful eyes. Any break from routine may result in terrible
I had very little pity for my relatives’ anxiety. If something had
happened to Bailey, Uncle Willie would always have Momma,
and Momma had the Store. We weren’t their children. But I
would be the major loser if Bailey was dead—he was the only
family I claimed, if not all I had.
“Momma,” Uncle Willie called and she jumped. “Momma,
why don’t you and Sister walk down to meet him?”
Baileys name hadn’t been mentioned for hours, but we all
knew whom he meant.
O f course. Why didn’t that occur to me? I wanted to be gone.
Momma said, “Wait a minute, little lady. Go get your sweater, and
bring me mine.”
It was darker in the road than I’d thought it would be.
Momma told me to carry the flashlight and she reached for my
hand. Her voice came from high above me and in the dark her
hand was wrapped around mine. I loved her suddenly. She said
nothing. Just the gentle pressure o f her rough hand showed me
her own concern and assurance.
We passed houses which I knew well by daylight but couldn’t
remember in the dark. Then Momma’s hand tightened and let
go, and I saw the small figure walking along, tired and oldmannish,
his hands in his pockets and his head bent.
“Bailey,” I said as Momma said, “Junior.” I started to run, but
her hand caught mine again and held it tight. “We’ll walk, just
like we’ve been walking, young lady.” There was no chance to
warn Bailey that he was dangerously late, that everybody had
been worried, and that he should create a good lie, or, better, a
Momma said, “Bailey, Junior,” and he looked up without
surprise. “You know it’s night and you’re just getting home?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He was empty. Where was his excuse?
“What have you been doing?”
“That’s all you’ve got to say?”
Yes, ma am.
“All right, young man. We’ll see when you get home.”
She had let me go. I grabbed for Bailey’s hand, but he pulled it
away. I said, “Hey, Bailey,” hoping to remind him that I was his
sister and his only friend, but he said something like “Leave me
Momma didn’t turn on the flashlight on the way back, nor did
she answer the “Good evenings” that greeted us as we passed the
I was confused and frightened. He was going to get a
whipping and maybe he had done something terrible. If he
couldn’t talk to me it must have been serious. He seemed sad. I
didn’t know what to think.
Uncle Willie said, “Think you’re getting too old, do you? You
can’t come home. You want to worry your grandmother to
death?” Bailey was beyond fear. Uncle Willie had a leather belt in
his good hand but Bailey didn’t notice or didn’t care. “I’m going
to whip you this time.” Our uncle had only whipped us once
before and then only with a stick, so maybe now he was going to
kill my brother. I screamed and grabbed for the belt, but Momma
caught me. “He has a lesson coming to him. You come on and
get your bath.”
From the kitchen I heard the belt hit bare skin. Bailey made
no sound. I was too afraid to splash water or even t a cry and take
a chance o f not hearing Bailey’s cries for help. But the cries never
came and the whipping was finally over.
I lay awake for a long time, waiting for a sign—a cry or a
whisper—from the next room telling me that he was still alive.
Just before I fell exhausted into sleep, I heard Bailey saying his
prayers: “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . ”
My last memory of that night was the question, Why is he
saying the baby prayer? We had been saying the grown-up prayer
For days the Store was a strange place. Bailey didn’t talk, smile,
or apologize. His eyes were expressionless. At meals I tried to
give him the best pieces o f meat and the largest portion o f
dessert, but he wouldn’t accept them.
Then one evening when we were feeding the pigs he said
without warning, “I saw Mother Dear.”
If he said it, it was the truth. He wouldn’t lie to me. I don’t
think I asked him where or when.
“In the movies.” He laid his head on the fence. “It wasn’t really
her. It was a woman named Kay Francis. She’s a white movie star
who looks just like Mother Dear.”
There was no difficulty believing that a white movie star
looked like our mother and that Bailey had seen her. He told me
that the movies changed each week, but when another picture
came starring Kay Francis, we’d go together. He even promised
to sit with me.
We had to wait almost two months before Kay Francis
returned to Stamps. Bailey’s mood had improved a lot, but the
expectation made him more nervous than he was usually. When
he told me that the movie would be shown, we used our best
behavior and were the perfect children that Grandmother
deserved and wished to think we were.
It was a comedy. The whitefolks downstairs laughed every few
minutes. The sound would remain in the air for a second before
the people in the balcony accepted it and sent their own laughter
to join with it.
I laughed, too, but not at the hateful jokes made about my
people. I laughed because, except that she was white, the big
movie star looked just like my mother. Except that she lived in a
big house with a thousand servants, she lived just like my mother.
And it was funny to think the whitefolks didn’t know that the#
woman they were admiring could be my mother’s twin, except
that she was white and my mother was prettier. Much prettier.
The movie star made me happy. It was extraordinary good
fortune to be able to save one’s money and go to see one’s
mother whenever one wanted to. I left the theater feeling as if I’d
been given an unexpected present. But Bailey was depressed
again. (I had to beg him not to stay for the next show.) On the
way home he stopped at the railroad track and waited for the
night train. Just before it reached the crossing, he jumped out and
ran across the tracks.
I was left on the other side going crazy. Maybe the huge
wheels had killed him. Or even worse, maybe he caught the train
and was gone for ever.
When the train passed he pushed himself away from the pole
where he had been leaning, laughed at me for making all that
noise, and said, “Let’s go home.”
One year later he did catch a train, but he didn’t find his
Mother Dear—he got stuck in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for two
The summer picnic fish fry by the lake was the biggest outdoor
event o f the year. Everyone was there. All churches were
represented, as well as the social groups, professional people
(Negro teachers from Lafayette County), and all the excited
I had wanted to bring something to read, but Momma said if I
didn’t want to play with the other children I could make myself
useful by cleaning fish or bringing water from the nearest well. I
wandered into a hidden quiet spot by accident. Signs with arrows
pointed MEN, WOMEN, C H IL D R E N toward lanes that
were hard to find, grown over since last year. Feeling old and very
wise at ten, I couldn’t allow myself to be found by the small
children peeing behind a tree. Nor did I dare to follow the arrow
pointing the way for WOMEN. So when I needed to pee, I
headed in another direction. When I got through the wall of
trees I found myself in an open space much smaller than the
picnic area, and cool and quiet. After my business was taken care
of, I found a seat and leaned back on a tree trunk. This is what
Heaven would be like. Maybe California, too. Looking straight
up at the sky, I felt far away.
There was a sound of footsteps on the grass and I jumped at
being found. I didn’t know that she too was escaping the noise of
the picnic. We were the same age, and she and her mother lived
in a neat little house behind the school. Her cousins, who were
our age, were wealthier and lighter-skinned, but I had secretly
believed that Louise was the prettiest female in Stamps, after
“What are you doing here by yourself, Marguerite?” She
didn’t accuse, she asked for information. I said that I was
watching the sky. She asked, “What for?” There was obviously no
answer to a question like that, so I didn’t make up one.
Louise was a lonely girl, although she had plenty o f playmates
and was always ready to be a partner for any game in the
schoolyard. Her face, which was long and dark chocolate brown,
was sad. And her eyes, which I thought were her best feature, –
shifted quickly as if what they sought had just a second before
She had come near and the light through the trees shined on
her face and hair. I had never noticed before, but she looked
exactly like Bailey. Her hair was “good”—more straight than
kinky—and her features were perfect.
She looked up— “Well, you can’t see much sky from here.”
Then she sat down, an arm’s length away from me. Slowly she
leaned against the tree. I closed my eyes and thought about 4
finding another place, but I realized that there probably wasn’t
another as good as this one. There was a little scream and before I
could open my eyes, Louise had grabbed my hand. “I was
falling”—she shook her long hair—“I was falling in the sky.”
I liked her for being able to fall in the sky and admit it. I |
suggested, “Let’s try it together. But we have to sit up straight ]
after counting to five.” Louise asked, “Want to hold hands? Just
in case?” I did. If one o f us did fall, the other could pull her out.
After a few near-falls, we laughed at having played with death
Louise said, “Let s look at the sky while we re spinning.” We
took each others hands in the center of the open space and
began turning around. Very slowly at first. We raised our chins
and looked straight up at the patch o f blue. Faster, just a little
faster, then faster, and even faster. Yes, help, we were falling. We
couldn’t stop spinning or falling until I fell out o f her grasp and
was thrown down. I found myself safe at the foot o f the tree.
Louise had landed on her knees at the other side o f the open
This was surely the time to laugh. First we were giggling and
crawling toward each other and then we were laughing out loud
crazily. We hit each other on the back and shoulders and laughed
By daring to challenge the unknown with me, she became my
first friend. We spent many hours teaching ourselves a secret
language. This made us superior to other children. At last I began
to understand what girls giggled about. Louise would say a few
sentences to me in our secret language and would laugh. O f
course, I laughed too. After all, girls have to giggle. After being a
woman for three years, I became a girl.
In school one day, a girl I hardly knew and had scarcely spoken to
brought me a note. The way it was folded indicated that it was a
love note. I was sure she had the wrong person, but she insisted. I
confessed to myself that I was frightened. Suppose it was
somebody being funny? Fortunately I had got permission to go
to the toilet—outside—and in the darkness I read:
Dear Friend, M.J.
Times are hard and friends are few
I take great pleasure in writing you
Will you be my valentine?
I struggled to remember. Who? Who was Tommy Valdon?
Finally a face dragged itself from my memory. He was the nicelooking
brown-skinned boy who lived across the lake. As soon as I
realized that, I began to wonder: Why? Why me? Was it a joke? But
if Tommy was the boy I remembered he was a serious person and a
good student. Well, then it wasn’t a joke. All right, what evil, dirty
things did he have in mind? What did a valentine do, anyway?
I thought of Louise. I could show it to her. I folded the paper
and went back to class. After classes I waited for her. She was
talking to a group o f girls, laughing. But when I gave her our
special signal (two waves o f the left hand) she said goodbye to
them and joined me in the road. I didn’t give her the chance to
ask what was on my mind (her favorite question); I just gave her
the note. Recognizing the way it was folded she stopped smiling.
She opened the letter and read it aloud twice. “Well, looks like he
wants you to be his valentine.”
“Louise, I can read. But what does it mean?”
“Oh, you know. His valentine. His love.”
There was that hateful word again.
“Well, I won’t. I certainly won’t. Not ever again.”
“Have you been his valentine before? What do you mean
I couldn’t lie to my friend and I wasn’t going to bring back
“Well, don’t answer him then, and that’s the end o f it.” I was
glad that she thought it could be gotten rid of so quickly. I tore
the note in half and gave her a part. Walking down the hill we
tore the paper into a thousand pieces and gave it to the wind.
Two days later an eighth grader came into my classroom. She
spoke quietly to Miss Williams, our teacher. Miss Williams said,
“Class, I believe you remember that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.
The day is observed by exchanging cards. The eighth grade
children have completed theirs and this girl is acting as mailman.
Now, stand when your name is called.”
We who were being called to receive valentines were only
slightly more embarrassed than those who sat and watched as
Miss Williams opened each envelope and read the message aloud.
I was filled with shame and anticipation but had time to be
offended at the silly poetry.
“Marguerite Anne Johnson. This looks more like a letter than
a valentine. ‘Dear Friend, I wrote you a letter and saw you tear it
up with your friend Miss L. I don’t believe you meant to hurt my
feelings, so whether you answer or not you will always be my
valentine. T. V.’ ”
“Class”—Miss Williams grinned and continued—“although
you are only in seventh grade, I’m sure you wouldn’t be so
impudent as to sign a letter with your initials. But here is a boy in
the eighth grade, who will soon graduate. . . You may collect
your valentines and these letters on your way out.”
It was a nice letter and Tommy had beautiful handwriting. I
was sorry I tore up the first. I felt good about his statement that
his feelings would not be influenced by whether I answered him
or not. He couldn’t be wanting you-know-what if he talked like
that. I told Louise that the next time he came to the Store I was
going to say something extra nice to him. Unfortunately the
situation was so wonderful to me that each time I saw Tommy I
giggled uncontrollably and was unable to form a complete
sentence. After a while he stopped including me in his general
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