I was fascinated by lesbians and I feared that I was one. I noticed
how deep my voice had become. It was lower than my
schoolmates’ voices. My hands and feet were not feminine and
small. In front of the mirror I examined my body. For a sixteenyear-
old my breasts were sadly underdeveloped. The skin under
my arms was as smooth as my face. I began to wonder: How did
lesbianism begin? What were the signs of it?
One night a classmate of mine called to ask if she could sleep at
my house. My mother gave permission. In my room we shared
mean gossip about our friends, giggled about boys, and complained
about school and life. Since my friend had nothing to sleep in, I
gave her one of my nightdresses, and without curiosity or interest I
watched her pull off her clothes. I wasn’t conscious of her body.
Then suddenly, for a brief moment, I saw her breasts. I was shocked.
They were small, but they were real. They were beautiful. A
universe divided what she had from what I had. She was a woman.
If I’d been older I might have thought that I was excited by
both a sense of beauty and the emotion of envy. But those
possibilities did not occur to me then. All I knew was that I had
been excited by looking at a woman’s breasts. Something about
me wasn’t normal. I was miserable. I must be a lesbian. After
examining myself, I reasoned that I didn’t have any of the
obvious characteristics—I didn’t wear pants, or have big
shoulders, or walk like a man, or even want to touch a woman. I
wanted to be a woman, but that seemed to be a world which I
was not going to be allowed to enter.
What I needed was a boyfriend. A boyfriend’s acceptance of
me would guide me intofemininity. Among the people I knew,
no one was interested. Understandably the boys of my age and
social group were interested in the yellow- or light-brownskinned
girls, with hairy legs, smooth little lips, and long straight
hair. What could an unattractive female do?
I decided I had to do something. Two handsome brothers
lived up the hill from our house. If I was going to try to have sex,
I saw no reason why I shouldn’t experiment with the best
candidates. I didn’t expect to interest either brother permanently,
but I thought I could interest one temporarily.
I made a plan that started with surprise. One evening as I
walked up the hill, the brother I had chosen came walking
directly into my trap.
“Hello, Marguerite.” He nearly passed me.
I put the plan into action. “Hey,” I began, “would you like to
have sex with me?” His mouth hung open. I had the advantage
and so I used it.
“Take me somewhere.”
He asked, “You mean you’re going to let me have sex with
I assured him that that was exactly what I was going to do. He
thought I was giving him something, but the fact was that it was
my intention to take something from him. His good looks and
popularity had made him so proud that he couldn’t see that
We went to a furnished room occupied by one of his friends,
who understood the situation immediately, got his coat, and left
us alone. He immediately turned off the lights. I was excited
rather than nervous, and hopeful instead of frightened. I had not
considered how physical the act would be. I had anticipated long
kisses and gentle touches. But there was nothing romantic about
the knee which forced my legs open, nor in the rub of hairy skin
on my chest.
Not one word was spoken.
My partner showed that our experience had ended by getting
up suddenly, and my main concern was how to get home
quickly. He may have sensed that he had been used, or his lack of
interest may have been an indication that I was less than
satisfying. Neither possibility bothered me.
Outside on the street we left each other with little more than
“OK, see you around.”
Thanks to Mr. Freeman nine years before, I had had no pain of
entry, and because of the absence of romantic involvement,
neither of us felt that much had happened.
At home I reviewed the failure and considered my new
position. I had had a man. I had been had. I not only didn’t enjoy
it, but whether I was normal or not was still a question.
There seemed to be no explanation for my private problem,
but being a product (“victim” may be a better word) of the
Southern Negro values, I decided that I “would understand it all
better later.” I went to sleep.
Three weeks later, having thought very little about the strange
night, I realized that I was pregnant.
The world had ended, and I was the only person who knew it. If
I could have a baby I obviously wasn’t a lesbian, but the little
pleasure I was able to take from that fact was overcome by fear,
guilt, and self-contempt. I had to accept that I had brought this
disaster on myself. How could I blame the innocent man whom I
had asked to make love to me?
I finally sent a letter to Bailey, who was at sea with the navy.
He wrote back, and he warned me against telling Mother of my
condition. We both knew she would very likely order me to
leave school. Bailey suggested that if I left school before getting
my high school diploma I’d find it almost impossible to return.
During the first three months, while I was adapting myself to
the fact of pregnancy (I didn’t link pregnancy to the possibility of
having a baby until weeks before its end) the days seemed to mix
together. The passing of time was never completely clear.
Fortunately, Mother was busy with her own life. As long as I
was healthy, clothed, and smiling, she felt no need to concentrate
her attention on me. As always, her major concern was to live the
life given to her, and her children were expected to do the same.
And to do it without being too much bother.
My breasts grew larger, and my brown skin grew smooth and
tight. And still she didn’t suspect. Years before, I had developed a
behavior which never varied. I didn’t lie. It was understood that I
didn’t lie because I was too proud to be caught and forced to
admit that I was capable of lying. Mother must have decided that
since I didn’t lie I also didn’t deceive. She was deceived.
All my motions were concentrated on pretending to be the
innocent schoolgirl who had nothing to worry about except
exams. School recovered its lost magic. For the first time since
Stamps, information was exciting for itself. I buried myself in
facts, and found delight in the logic of mathematics.
Halfway through my pregnancy, Bailey came home. As my
sixth month approached, Mother left San Franciscofor Alaska.
She was going to open a nightclub and planned to stay three or
four months. Daddy Clidell was told to look after me but I was
more or less left on my own.
Mother left the city with a cheerful send-off party, and I felt
deceitful for allowing her to go without informing her that she
would soon be a grandmother.
Two days after the war ended, I stood with the San Francisco
Summer School class at Mission High School and received my
diploma. That evening I revealed my fearful secret and, in a brave
gesture, left a note on Daddy Clidell’s bed. It read: Dear Parents, I am
sorry to bring this disgrace on the family, but I am pregnant. Marguerite.
The confusion that followed when I explained to Daddy
Clidell that I expected to deliver the baby in about three weeks
wasn’t funny until years later. He told Mother that I was “three
weeks along.” Mother, back from Alaska and regarding me as a
woman for the first time, said, “She’s more than three weeks.”
They both accepted the fact that I had been pregnant longer than
they had first been told, but it was impossible for them to believe
that I had carried a baby for eight months and one week, without
Mother asked, “W h o ’s the boy?” I told her.
“Do you want to marry him?”
“N o ”
“Does he want to marry you?” The father had stopped
speaking to me during my fourth month.
“Well, that’s that. No use in ruining three lives.” There was no
criticism. She was Vivian Baxter Jackson. Hoping for the best,
prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.
Daddy Clidell assured me that I had nothing to worry about.
He sent one of his waitresses to buy dresses for me. For the next
two weeks I went to doctors, bought clothes for the baby, and
enjoyed the coming event.
Quickly and without too much pain, my son was born. In my
mind gratefulness was confused with love, and possession became
mixed up with motherhood. I had a baby. He was beautiful and
mine. Totally mine. No one had bought him for me. No one had
helped me through the months of pregnancy.
I was afraid to touch him. Home from the hospital, I sat for
hours by his bed and admired his mysterious perfection. Mother
handled him easily and with confidence, but I feared being
forced to hold him. Wasn’t I famous for awkwardness? I was
afraid I might drop him.
Mother came to my bed one night bringing my three-weekold
baby. She explained that he was going to sleep with me.
I begged uselessly. I was sure to roll over and crush out his life
or break his bones. She wouldn’t listen, and within minutes the
pretty golden baby was lying on his back in the center of my bed,
laughing at me.
I lay on the edge of the bed, stiff with fear, and promised not
to sleep all night long. But I fell asleep.
My shoulder was shaken gently. Mother whispered, “Maya,
wake up. But don’t move.”
I knew immediately that the awakening was about the baby I
became tense. “I’m awake.”
She turned the light on and said, “Look at the baby.” My fears
were so powerful that I couldn’t move to look at the center of
the bed. She said again, “Look at the baby.” I didn’t hear sadness
in her voice, and that helped me stop being frightened. The baby
was no longer in the center of the bed. At first I thought he had
moved. But after closer investigation, I found that I was lying on
my stomach with my arm bent at a right angle. Under the tent of
blanket, formed by my elbow and arm, the baby slept touching
Mother whispered, “See, you don’t have to think about doing
the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it
She turned out the light, and I patted my son’s body lightly
and went back to sleep.
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