The house seemed smaller and quieter after the trip south, and
San Francisco didn’t seem as exciting. I realized that I had given
up some youth for knowledge, but my gain was more valuable
than the loss.
Bailey was much older, too. Even years older than I had
become. He had made new friends and his language had
changed. He may have been glad to see me, but he didn’t act like
- When I tried to tell him of my adventures, he responded with
a lack of interest which stopped my stories. His new companions
drank alcohol secretly and told bad jokes. Although I had no
regrets, I told myself sadly that growing up was not the painless
process one expected it to be.
In one area my brother and I found ourselves closer. I had
learned public dancing, and Mother allowed us to go to the big
band dances in the city hall. In a few months handsome Bailey
and his tall sister were famous.
Although I had risked my life (not intentionally) in her
defense, Mother’s reputation, good name, and community image
ceased being of interest to me. I didn’t care for her less, but I was
less concerned about everything and everyone. I often thought
how boring life was after one had seen all its surprises. In two
months, I had become uninterested.
Mother and Bailey were having mother—son problems. Bailey
was sixteen and hopelessly in love with Mother Dear. Her heroes
and her friends were rich gamblers who wore expensive clothes.
How could a sixteen-year-old boy hope to compete with such
rivals? He did what he had to do. He acquired a white prostitute,
a diamond ring on his finger, and an expensive jacket. He didn’t
consciously think of the new possessions as a way to gain Mother
Dear’s acceptance. And she had no idea that her preferences led
him to such excesses.
From another room I heard their arguments and listened
hopelessly. I was left out of their power-love struggles.
One night he came home at one o’clock, two hours late.
“I guess you’re a man . . . ” she said to him.
“I’m your son, Mother Dear,” he responded.
“Clidell is the only man in this house, and if you think you’re
so much of a m a n . . . ” Her voice was angry.
“I’m leaving now, Mother Dear,” he announced.
“Then get moving.” And Bailey went to his room.
Bailey was leaving home. At one o ’clock in the morning my
brother, who had always protected me, was leaving home. I went
to his room and found him throwing his clothes into a
pillowcase. His maturity embarrassed me. He didn’t look like my
brother. Not knowing what to say, I asked if I could help, and he
answered, “Leave me alone.”
I leaned on the door, giving him my physical presence, but
said no more.
“She wants me out, does she?” he continued, talking to
himself. “Well, I’ll get out of here fast. She won’t see me here
again. I’ll be OK. I’ll always be OK.”
At some point he noticed me in the doorway. “Maya, if you
want to leave now, come on. I’ll take care of you.”
He didn’t wait for an answer, but quickly returned to speaking
to his soul. “She won’t miss me, and I won’t miss her. To hell with
her and everybody else.”
He had finished pushing his shoes on top of his shirts and ties
and socks in the pillowcase. He remembered me again.
“Maya, you can have my books,” he said. Then he grabbed the
pillowcase, pushed past me, and headed for the stairs. I heard the
front door shut loudly.
Mother’s eyes were red the next morning, but she smiled. No
one mentioned Bailey’s absence, as if things were as they should
be and always were.
I believed I knew where he had gone the night before, and
decided to try tofind him and offer him my support. In the
afternoon I went to the house. A woman answered the doorbell
and said Bailey Johnson was at the top of the stairs. His eyes were
as red as Mothers had been, but his face was not as angry as it
had been the night before. I was invited in.
He began to talk about everything except our unusual
situation. Eventually he said, “Maya, you know, its better this
w ay … I mean, I’m a man, and I have to be on my ow n . . . ”
I was angry that he didn’t curse Mother or at least act upset.
“This morning Mother Dear came here. We had a very good
discussion.” He chose his words carefully. “She understands
completely. There’s a time in every man’s life when he must leave
the safety of home and go out on his own. She’s arranging with a
friend of hers to get me a job on the trains. I’ll learn the job and
then get a better one. The future looks good.”
If I’d had any suggestions to make, he wouldn’t have heard
them. And, most regrettable, I had no suggestion to make.
“I’m your sister, and I’ll do whatever I can,” I told him.
“Maya, don’t worry about me. That’s all I want you to do.
Don’t worry. I’ll be OK.”
I left his room because, and only because, we had said all we
could say. The unsaid words made us feel uncomfortable.
Back in my room, I felt depressed. It was going to be
impossible for me to stay there. Running away from home
wouldn’t be right, either. But I needed a change.
I would go to work. It would be easy to persuade Mother. I
was a year ahead of my grade in school and Mother believed in
taking care of oneself. After I had made that decision, I just
needed to decide which kind of job I was most suited to. Because
of the war, women had replaced men as conductors on the
streetcars, and the thought of riding up and down the hills of San
Francisco in a dark-blue uniform, with a money changer on my
belt, was appealing. When Mother asked what I planned to do, I
replied that I would get a job on the streetcars. She rejected the
idea with: “They don’t accept colored people on the streetcars.”
My first reaction was disappointment. I’d pictured myself
dressed in a neat, blue suit, my money changer swinging at my
waist, with a cheerful smile for the passengers which would make
their own work day brighter. I told her again that I would go to
work on the streetcars and wear a blue suit, and she gave me her
support. “That’s what you want to do? Nothing beats trying
except failure. Give it your best effort.”
It was the most positive encouragement I could have hoped
In the offices of the Market Street Railway Company, the
receptionist seemed surprised to see me there. I explained that I
had come to ask about a job. She asked if I was sent by an agency,
and when I replied that I was not, she told me that they were
only accepting applicants from agencies.
“I’m applying for the job listed in this morning’s Chronicle and
I’d like to be presented to your personnel manager.”
“H e ’s out for the day. You could come back tomorrow and if
he’s in, I’m sure you can see him.” Then she turned her chair
around and I was supposed to be dismissed.
“May I ask his name?”
She half turned, acting surprised tofind me still there.
“His name? Whose name?”
“The personnel manager.”
“The personnel manager? Oh, h e’s Mr. Cooper, but I’m not
sure you’ll find him here tomorrow. H e ’s .. . but you can try.”
And I was out of the room and out of the building. I thought
about our conversation. It wasn’t personal. The incident was a
repeating dream, made up years before by stupid whites, and it
always returned. I accepted the receptionist as another victim of
the rules of society.
On the streetcar, I put my fare into the box and the conductor
looked at me with the usual hard eyes of white contempt. “Move
into the car, please move on in the car.” She patted her money
Her Southern accent interrupted my thoughts. All lies, all
comfortable lies. The receptionist was not innocent and neither
was I. The whole situation in that waiting room was directly
about me, Black, and her, white.
I wouldn’t move into the streetcar but stood on the platform.
My mind shouted.
I WO ULD HAVE TH E JOB. I WO ULD BE A
C O N D U C T O R AND H A N G A M O N EY C H A N G E R
FROM MY BELT. I WOULD.
I was determined. During the next three weeks the Negro
organizations to whom I appealed for support sent me from one
to another. Why did I insist on that particular job? There were
opportunities that paid almost twice the money. They thought I
was crazy. Possibly I was.
During this period of strain, Mother and I began our first steps
on the long path toward shared adult admiration. She never asked
for reports and I didn’t offer any details. But every morning she
made breakfast, and gave me carfare and lunch money, as if I were
going to work. She understood that I had to try every possibility
before giving up.
On my way out of the house one morning she said, “Life is
going to give you what you put in it. Put your whole heart in
everything you do, and pray, then you can wait.” Another time
she reminded me that “God helps those who help themselves.”
Strangely, as bored as I was with these sayings, her way of saying
them gave them something new, and started me thinking—for a
little while at least. Later, when she asked how I got my job, I was
never able to say exactly. I only knew that one day I sat in the
railway office, pretending to be waiting to be interviewed. The
receptionist called me to her desk and pushed a bundle of papers
to me. They were the application forms. I had little time to
wonder if I had won or not, because the standard questions
reminded me of the necessity for lying. How old was I? List my
previous jobs. How much money did I earn, and why did I leave
the position? Give two references (not relatives).
Sitting at a side table, I made a story of near-truths and total
lies. I kept my face without expression and wrote quickly the
story of Marguerite Johnson, age nineteen, former companion
and driver for Mrs. Annie Henderson (a white lady) in Stamps,
I was given a number of tests. Then on one happy day I was
hired as the first Negro on the San Francisco streetcars.
Mother gave me the money to have my blue suit made, and I
learned tofill out work cards and operate the money changer.
Soon I was standing on the back of the streetcar, smiling sweetly
and persuading my passengers to “step forward in the car, please.”
For one whole semester the streetcars and I went up and
down the hills of San Francisco. My work shifts were split so
much that it was easy to believe my superiors had chosen them
with bad intentions. When I mentioned my suspicions to
Mother, she said, “D o n ’t worry about it. You ask for what you
want, and you pay for what you get.”
She stayed awake to drive me out to the streetcar garage at
four-thirty in the mornings, or to pick me up when I was
finished just before dawn. She knew that I was safe on the public
transportation, but she wouldn’t trust a taxi driver with her baby.
When spring classes began, I returned to my commitment to
formal education. I was much wiser and older, much more
independent, with a bank account and clothes that I had bought
for myself. I was sure that I had learned and earned what was
necessary to be a part of the life of my classmates.
Within weeks, however, I realized that my schoolmates and I
were on opposite paths. They were concerned and excited over
football games, but I had recently raced a car down a dark and
foreign Mexican mountain. They concentrated their interest on
who would be the school president, and when the metal bands
would be removed from their teeth, while I remembered
sleeping for a month in an abandoned car and working in a
streetcar in the early hours of the morning. I realized that the
things I still had to learn wouldn’t be taught to me at George
Washington High School.
I began missing classes, walking in Golden Gate Park, or
wandering in the department store. When Mother discovered
that I wasn’t going to school, she told me that if I didn’t want to
go to school one day, I should tell her, and I could stay home. She
said that she didn’t want a white woman calling her to tell her
something about her child that she didn’t know. She didn’t want
to have to lie to a white woman because I wasn’t woman enough
to talk to her. That ended my days of not going to school, but
nothing changed to make it a better place for me to be.
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