I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS - MAYA ANGELOU
Maya's humiliation at the church Easter celebration sets the tone of the book. She is " aware of her displacement" and feels that she is in a " black ugly dream"; that she is "really white" and the victim of a "cruel fairy stepmother". The first part of this lengthy autobiography deals with Maya's childhood and adolescence in the segregated South of the United States and the relationships with the people in her family who are her early role models; her father's mother (grandmother) Annie Henderson, aka "Momma" - her uncle Willie; brother Bailey and her parents and their partners.
It is obvious from the outset that Maya feels herself to be very different and certainly aware, even at an early age of the handicap of her colour. The five volumes of her autobiography examine in often graphic detail, a journey of discovery which leads to her emergence as a liberated, black woman.
Maya and Bailey are sent from California to Grandmother Henderson's home in Stamps, Arkansas, when their parents divorce. Maya is three; Bailey four; the year is 1931.
Momma is a successful businesswoman, owning her own store in the negro district, it is described as the "lay centre of activities in town".
Negro work is seasonal and Maya describes the cotton harvest in graphic detail on the "remains of slavery's plantations". It is back breaking, demeaning work, with pathetic wages which are never enough to remove the crushing load of debt from the pickers. "In cotton picking time, the late afternoons revealed the harshness of Black Southern life.."
Note the contrast between the mornings, which she describes with gentle nostalgic charm, and the evenings, which bring home the dismal truth of the negro condition. It is a device which recurs throughout the book.
Uncle Willie described. Note the callous acceptance of his condition and the reason for it by Momma and the way that he is the "whipping boy and butt of jokes of the under employed and underpaid." He is proud and sensitive but only once does Maya see him pretend to be able bodied, in front of a visiting couple of teachers from Little Rock. She does not understand why he chose those people for his pretence, but understands his need to do it.
There is a deliberate mind-set both among negroes and whites which enables both sides to accept and endure segregation. Maya and Bailey will not memorise the scene from "Merchant of Venice" because they know that Momma will object to them even reading white literature. It would make no difference to Momma that Shakespeare is English and dead - black people read black literature or the Bible. Also noteworthy is the fatalistic acceptance of their lot by the negroes. There is a clearly defined pecking order in negro society, almost as though it could compensate for their segregation.
Again a contrast with a vivid description of the store and the sensuous pineapples and cakes at Christmas in the first half of the chapter and a horrific and humiliating conclusion with Uncle Willie hiding from the Klan in the vegetable bin.
The matter-of-fact acceptance by Momma and the adults of the coming visit by the "boys" emphasises the injustice of the South. The "used-to-be-sherrif" has the total confidence of a slave owner. His nonchalance is "meant to convey his authority and power over even dumb animals". Maya hates him and hates what he represents. She can find no charity in her soul for people like him. Momma, and presumably all the rest of the adults in Stamps, are acquiescent. This is the way of things and Willie hides, ludicrous and grotesque, "like a casserole." moaning all night in case he is found and killed.
Two important male role models ; Mr McElroy, a tradesman and house owner next door to Momma, a "near anachronism" in Stamps and brother Bailey, the "greatest person" in Maya's world.
Bailey is an object of worship for Maya, because of his physical beauty and also his intelligence and his championing of Maya .He is described as the "pride of the Henderson/Johnson family. He is daring, dashing and charming and takes after his mother, Vivian.
It is interesting that she devotes a considerable part of this chapter to talking about people who are appealing to her, because the final short section introduces the notion of "whitefolks", who to the negroes, especially the children of Stamps, are not "people" at all, but strange alien beings who walk on their heels "like horses" and have breasts built into their dresses; whose skin is white and "see-throughy" and who are to be "dreaded".
The reason for the information about "whitefolks" is apparent in this chapter, which deals with the "powhitetrash". Even though they are the lowest social level of white people - living on land which actually belongs to Momma - their colour and the injustice of segregated society gives them the same rights as other whitefolks - that of treating negroes as sub-humans. The powhitetrash children "fling orders " at Momma "like lashes from a cat o' nine tails" when they come into the store, and Momma endures their insults because there is no way she can break the rules.
Maya's witness of the taunting which the powhitetrash girls give to Momma is what leads to her "lifelong paranoia" about the injustices done to her race. She wants to do the girls violence, but remains silent. Momma endures the insults by retreating into a dignified, trance-like state, humming a hymn. Maya does not fully understand what power Momma has to withstand the insults, but she dimly realises it has something to do with Momma's faith and her human dignity. The girls leave, eventually, after having their "fun", and Maya "bursts" with indignation, Momma's response is to lay hands on Maya, like the sisters "lay hands on the sick and afflicted". It is a stunning display of patience and endurance, born of long experience of suffering and it confirms Momma in Maya's eyes as something approaching a saint. It is also a sickening example of the power that even the meanest white person has over a negro.
Maya's relationship with the church and God is an important part of her early life. In a household like Annie Henderson's, faith is central to existence. Annie is a Bible Christian, taking literally the word as law and trying to live absolutely within the rules laid down in the book. The children are included without question in that way of life. They attend church and read the Bible, learn portions of it by heart and are constantly reminded of its teachings. Neither of them have arrived at an adult acceptance of faith, as we presume Annie has, and so their church going is, like many children, is something done as a duty rather than from a confirmed position of belief. As we will see later in the book, Christianity offered a real hope to many negroes, promising salvation and equality as a reward for suffering. Their worship tended to be uninhibited and extremely emotional, and Maya's account of Sister Monroe's visitation by the Holy Spirit is an accurate one. It is not meant to be disrespectful, but is an honest attempt to recount a hysterically funny episode. Note how the preacher, Reverend Taylor, in the first account of Sister Monroe's "mighty spirit" visitation, gets a new suit out of the deacon board of the church, by preaching about loud public prayer.
The second episode, starring Elder Thomas and Sister Monroe is even funnier, when she hits him with her handbag and his false teeth shoot out . Again, note how the preacher keeps on "preachin' it" even managing to find an appropriate text for the occasion. Maya and Bailey have hysterics and receive a whipping from Uncle Willie.
Apart from the very accurate writing in this chapter, we need to focus on what it tells us about the gulf between childhood and maturity. neither Maya or bailey are being deliberately malicious. They dislike Revd. Thomas because they see him accurately for what he is, something of an opportunist and not particularly appealing, but they wish him no harm. Nor do they dislike Sister Monroe, who is, to them, an amusing diversion. Momma, of course, sees their behaviour as a reflection on her standing in the community. She may well feel embarrassed at Sister Monroe's outburst, but does not show it. Who is being badly behaved, though?
Startling details about Annie Henderson's previous life include three marriages, at least one to a vagrant of dubious background, a Mr Murphy. She is also "the only negro woman in Stamps referred to once as Mrs." owing to a mistaken idea by a visiting judge, who subpoenaed Momma to appear in court by the title Mrs Henderson, not realising that she was black. Note this paradox - on the one hand Momma is a pillar of respectability and upright living, and yet she has been wife to three men, one of whom is certainly a thief.
Momma's ingenuity shown once again in the Depression, when she introduces a barter system for the welfare supplies, which she accepts in lieu of money for trade in her store. Maya remembers the time as one when she and Bailey were among the only people who had actually to eat the powdered eggs which everyone else exchanged. Momma survives the hard times, though, better than many whitefolks.
The discovery that their parents are alive with the arrival of gifts one Christmas, is an unwelcome one. Both children believe that their behaviour was the reason for the separation and their pleasure in discovering that they have two living parents is tainted by the dread of what will happen if they appear. With typical adult insensitivity, Momma does not even explain the situation or make any attempt to reassure the children. Her brand of child care is stern, uncompromising and strictly by the Holy Book.
Big Bailey, the children's' father arrives to take them to their mother, in St Louis. he is a bizarre man, full of confidence and very much the exotic visitor to unsophisticated Stamps. He is held in high esteem in Stamps as someone who has "made it" and he revels in his standing as an important figure in Stamps society. He and Bailey get on well, but Maya is intimidated by him and dreads the prospect of meeting the exotic Vivian, her mother. Maya describes her as a "hurricane" and falls instantly under her spell. Vivian Baxter is a very light skinned negro, almost white and very beautiful. Bailey is physically like his mother, Maya is not. The relationship between Bailey and Vivian is very close indeed; Maya describes him as falling "instantly and forever in love" with Vivian. The children's relationship with Big Bailey, their father is nothing like as close as it is with Vivian. His departure from St Louis for California is almost unnoticed.
The background of the Baxter clan is explained. they are light skinned, Grandmother Baxter is one-eighth black, an octoroon. She is also a very independent woman, like Momma, but much more sophisticated, having been raised by a white family and educated as a nurse before her marriage. The Baxter clan is large and tough, noted for the fierceness of its men and the spirit of its women. In the black ghetto of St Louis, they reign supreme, running businesses which are certainly suspicious and probably illegal. Grandmother Baxter is a sort of black Godfather-figure in the negro community and as much respected in her world as Momma is in Stamps. The "mean" uncles all have jobs in the city, which is unusual for the time.
The children are sent to a black city school and find that although the style of teaching is different, they are in fact much more intelligent than all the other pupils. They are paraded around the various night clubs and bars which the Baxter clan either own or protect and learn all sorts of dubious skills like dancing, card playing and so on.
The meanness of the Baxters is illustrated in the story about Vivian's showdown with a man who had cursed her. The brothers; Tutti, Tom and Ira, stand by while Vivian smashes the man's head with a police billy. There is no comeback, thanks to the Baxter influence. Maya is "thrilled by their meanness", believing them to be glamorous and important. They certainly have a very strong sense of family loyalty and solidarity and Maya feels very secure as part of this extended support system.
It is never made clear as to why the children return to Vivian at this time, ,and certainly it is a move which is to prove traumatic for both of them because of Maya's experience with Vivian's live-in lover, Mr Freeman. At the outset, however, Maya and Bailey feel that they are fortunate and privileged to be part of such a proud and influential clan.
The next chapters deal starkly with the abuse Maya suffers at the hands of Vivian's boyfriend, Freeman. He is much older than Vivian and works in a regular job with regular hours in the railway yard. Vivian's night time hours of work mean that Maya and Bailey spend evenings in the flat with Freeman, who "simply waited for Mother and put his whole self into waiting."
Maya feels sorry for Freeman, whom she describes like a pig being fattened up for the kill. His pathetic dependence on Vivian is apparent and his actions are probably triggered by a need to find a sexual substitute for her. He chooses Maya. Her account of the horrors of repeated abuse by Freeman are made all the more dreadful because of the stark simplicity of her language. Her upbringing in Stamps - not speaking unless spoken to and keeping quiet and respectful around grown ups, makes it impossible for her to disclose what is happening even to her beloved Bailey. As she says "there was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn't understand and who made no effort to understand mine." Things are made even more difficult for her because she feels a certain amount of sympathy for Freeman and at first, enjoys the closeness of physical contact with him.
The rape which Maya endures is the result of the break up of the relationship between Vivian and Freeman. Vivian has stayed out all night the night before, and Freeman is affected by that and the situation which obviously exists between them. The episode is recounted with the same horrifying simplicity as were the other incidents, no detail being spared. Freeman moves out before the family discovers what has been happening to Maya, and she conceals it as long as she can because of the threat Freeman makes to kill both her and Bailey if she tells anyone what he did. The fight which Maya hears between her mother and Freeman is not about the rape, of which Vivian knows nothing The discovery is made by accident, as Bailey changes the sheets on Maya's bed.
It is Bailey in whom Maya confides and he cries. ("almost fifteen years passed before I saw my brother cry again.") Freeman is arrested and tried and the court case is charged with prurience and excitement. All the negro friends of the Baxters attend the hearing and Maya is treated like something of a celebrity Maya is unable to admit that the rape was not the first time that she was touched, and it is this lie that causes the silence which she endures afterwards. Freeman is sentenced, but released on bail and found dead; kicked to death behind a slaughterhouse. Maya believes that his fate is the result of her lie and she has lost her place in heaven and is full of evil. She decides not to let the evil out (i.e. not lie any more by not speaking at all). This behaviour is accepted at first as a natural result of post-rape trauma, but as it goes on she is punished for being "uppity" and sullen.
The children are eventually sent back to Stamps, Maya never finds out whether it is because Momma asks for them or because the St Louis family just got tired of their presence.
There seems no evidence that any form of therapy or counselling was ever given at the time of the incident, the Baxter family shows little sign of emotion other than irritation that Maya cannot behave as though everything was over and done with. This is a tall order for an eight year old.
The return to Stamps has different effects on the children. Bailey "takes to sarcasm" and patronises the country folk who come into the store to see the children and ask about life in the big city. Maya exists in a muted world of sombre colours and muffled sounds. Both are unhappy at their enforced exile from their mother and her colourful family.
Mrs Flowers is the woman who brings Maya out of the silent world into which she has retreated. She is the "aristocrat of Black Stamps", "our side's answer to the richest white woman in town." Once more, Maya has access to a powerful female role model - very similar to Momma in her integrity and standing in the community, but different in that Mrs Flowers has a formal education, while Momma has not. Mrs Flowers is able to offer Maya a rationalisation of life which is beyond Momma or Uncle Willie. She recognises the intelligence of the child and feeds it, through Literature and a series of "lessons in living". Maya is drawn out of her purdah by the lure of words, first in books and then through reading aloud. She is liked and respected; treated as a fellow adult by Mrs Flowers and this restores her shattered self-esteem.
Ironically, of course, this newly found joy is short-lived, when Maya uses the phrase "by the way" to Bailey , which Momma takes exception to because it is, in her eyes, blasphemous. This is an illustration of the difference between the bigoted, narrow view of women like Momma, and the liberal, educated views of women like Mrs Flowers. It is important, though, not to be quick to judge a woman like Momma too harshly., she is an intriguing blend of intelligence and ignorance. Had her circumstances been different; had she been allowed the privilege of education, she would probably have been as refined as Mrs Flowers. It is not her fault that the harshness of Southern life and the injustices of segregation have made her what she is. Mrs Flowers recognises the worth of Momma as a person to be respected despite her lack of formal learning. Maya does not come to this realisation quite so fast. It is also important to remember that Momma takes her religion totally seriously and genuinely feels that Maya has committed a sin by using an expression which Momma considers disrespectful to Christ.
Maya's "finishing school" when she is ten is to work as an assistant domestic servant in the home of a wealthy white woman. Mrs Viola Cullinan. The "exactness" of the house is "inhuman" and the permanent servant, Miss Glory (a descendant of slaves who had worked for the Cullinan family) has served the family for twenty years.
At first Maya feels sorry for Mrs Cullinan, who is childless and a secret drinker, but she soon learns to dislike her when Mrs Cullinan's friends tell her to shorten Maya's name to Mary. (Her name is actually Marguerite, but it has been "whitened" to Margaret for the duration of her employment). Miss Glory tells Maya that she, too had been "called out of her name", having been christened "Hallelujah". Mrs Cullinan Had changed that to "Glory". Maya's anger at the imposition is intense and her revenge is suggested by Bailey, when lateness and slovenly work fail to alter Mrs Cullinan's decision.
Maya breaks, quite deliberately, the best pieces of antique china and glass in the house. Mrs Cullinan is forced to say that Maya's name is "Margaret, goddam it!" and Maya leaves the house vindicated. Here it is interesting to note the unspoken understanding which is evident when Mrs Cullinan shortens Maya's name. She is perfectly aware that she is offending the child and that she is behaving disrespectfully in doing so. She expects retaliation, but not in the form it happens. Life in the segregated South has a very strict code of conduct, even when it comes to the trading of insults.
Bailey begins to grow up and suffers greatly because he misses Vivian. He is also approaching adolescence and any behaviour out of the ordinary is dangerous to negro youth. Beating and even lynching were quite common until the fifties in the American south. Being in the wrong place; behaving in a disrespectful way; speaking out of turn or merely being noticed was often enough to ensure trouble, especially for young black men. When Bailey stays out late one Saturday night, Momma and Uncle Willie are convinced that he has come to harm. Their reaction when he comes home is not to comfort him, but to beat him; thus hoping to reinforce the idea that he must not wander away. He has, in fact been to the cinema and has seen a movie starring a white actress called Kay Francis, who looks like Vivian Baxter. His unhappiness makes him determined to run away, to find his Mother Dear again. His first attempt to hitch a ride on a freight train leave him stranded in baton Rouge for a fortnight.
Note the segregation in the cinema and the way that Hollywood stereotypes the negro characters in the film; also how the negroes in the segregated balcony join in the laughter at themselves which comes up from the white seats in the stalls.
Maya feels continuing rage at the injustices constantly meted out to the negroes and finds it difficult to accept the fatalistic attitude they show to their suffering. Note her comment on pp 116-117 about how important God is to poor people and how unimportant he becomes the richer people become. She feels irritation and anger not only about the situation, but about her fellow men, wondering whether her people are "a race of masochists".
The camp revival meeting (religious meetings held nightly over about a week in a large marquee) is the main subject of this chapter, and the description is once more very accurate and vivid. The sermon, on Corinthians chapter 1 , is about charity, but it is a thinly disguised attack on the lack of charity shown to the negro by the whitefolks (not mentioned openly, of course) and the suggestion that the same whitefolks were due their "comeuppance"; that on the day of judgement, God would separate the sheep (the negroes) from the goats (the whitefolks). The "emotional release" of such sermons is orgasmic - the sufferings of this world are as nothing compared to the exaltation of the world to come, where the negroes "were going to be angels in a marble white heaven and sit on the right hand of Jesus." After this stirring sermon the "altar call" is given and new converts are accepted into the church. The people are described as "playing in the magic, as children poke in mud pies".
On the way home, an alternative panacea is passed in the shape of the honky tonk bar, owned by Miss Grace, the "good-time woman". In there people are also engaged in "forsaking their own distress for a while". It is an interesting contrast which the author uses here. Momma's world is most certainly the one of church and the promises of salvation while Vivian Baxter's world is that of Miss Grace, the good time woman. Both offer the oppressed negro the opportunity to forget their cares , in very different ways and both have an appeal for the children. Neither, of course offers a real solution to the fundamental injustice of a society which refuses to even recognise that the negro is a human being like others.
The Louis-Carnera boxing match is the occasion for the Stamps negroes to celebrate the success of one of their fellow black men. The sting in the tail is the comment at the end of the chapter, when the assembled customers in the store are forced to creep home very quietly and unobtrusively because "it wouldn't do for a black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world." As will be seen in a later chapter, black people were ordained (by white society) to be "athletes, handymen and domestic servants".
Maya's acquisition of a best friend helps her healing process. Louise Kendricks provides her with a confidante and gives her the chance to be a little girl after "being a woman for three years". She is still very badly scarred by the Freeman incident, though as her reaction to Tommy Valdon's first Valentine letter shows. Her sexual naivety remains acute, leading eventually to a disastrous encounter in her mid-teens which leaves her pregnant.
Bailey, on the other hand, is much more precocious than Maya, building Captain Scarlet dens inside which he "initiated girls into the mysteries of sex". He meets a fifteen year old girl called Joyce (he is eleven) and she initiates him for real. Maya is employed as lookout while the initiation takes place. Maya says that Joyce is for Bailey "the mother who would let him get as close as he dreamed, the sister who wasn't moody and withdrawing and tender hearted". While the short affair lasts , he is his old self, but Joyce runs off with a much older man and marries him, leaving Bailey moody and withdrawn again. It is important not to attach a particular importance either to the age or colour of the children. White teenagers can and do act in exactly the same way.
The solidarity of the negro community is once more displayed as Momma comforts the recently bereaved Mr George Taylor. This is a difficult chapter, because of the implicit belief in ghosts and the supernatural which all the characters seem to share. Mr Taylor's vision of his dead wife who tells him she wants some children is obviously real to him and Momma and Willie take it seriously. The terror felt by Maya and Bailey is also real, made even more so because Maya's attendance at Mrs Taylor's recent funeral has brought home to her for the first time the reality of death. Momma's interpretation of the vision and her suggestion that Mr Taylor becomes involved with a children's Sunday school class comforts him and the children. It is prosaic solution ,like Momma herself and Maya admires her ability to "command the fretful spirits".
Graduation from junior high school is an occasion of great celebration in the Stamps community , necessitating new clothes, much preparation by the students of graduation speeches and gifts. It is an important rite of passage in American life and the negro students take it just as seriously as the whites. "Whitefolks attend the ceremony and two or three would speak of God and home and the Southern way of life."
Maya approaches her graduation with heightened anticipation that it will be a special occasion and looks forward to it very much. She is one of the top two students in her year and feels proud of her achievements. The day is perfect; her gifts ( a Mickey Mouse watch and a book of poems from the family) are exactly right. All goes well until the visiting white speaker begins his speech. Maya is convinced before then that "something ..unplanned was going to happen and we would be made to look bad."
The speaker is a white man, Mr Donleavy and he delivers a brusque, patronising speech which extols the success of the white school in Stamps and assures the black school that they have every chance of becoming good athletes and workmen if they work hard. His words are destructive and made even more insulting because he does not even realise the effect they have. He turns his speech into an election plea for votes from the black community; promising a covered play area and equipment for the home economics rooms and workshops if he is elected. When he leaves, as brusquely as he came, the atmosphere is "ugly" and graduation is ruined. They are "exposed" (read pp 176-177)
Maya burns with hatred and thinks of all the colours she hates "ecru, puce, lavender, beige and black" as the valedictory speech is delivered by the top student, Henry Reed. He turns it into a song of triumph by reciting the negro National Anthem at the end. It is taken up and sung by the audience and suddenly Maya realises that she is " a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful negro race"
One of the last anecdotes told about Momma and Stamps society is fittingly included at this point. Maya's visit to the dentist shows once more with startling clarity the reality of segregation. Lacking the money to take Maya to a black dentist in Texarkana, Momma is forced to take her to the white dentist in town, Dr Lincoln, whom she is sure will see to the child because he owes Momma a favour.
The reality is very different. In spite of the fact that Lincoln is a past debtor of Mommas (she lent him enough money during the Depression to enable him to keep his house and his business), he refuses to treat Maya. he will not even look at her. Pressed to admit his "policy" he says he would "sooner stick my hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's".
Momma leaves Maya alone while she talks to the dentist (she borrows the money from him to pay the bus fare to Texarkana by demanding "interest" on the loan she made him) and Maya convinces herself that while Momma was absent she gave Lincoln a "comeuppance". She wants to believe that, even when she overhears Momma telling the real version to Willie later that night.
In a society which has not known the horror of segregation it is difficult to understand how one person could be so callous and another so obedient and accommodating. The injustice of the situation and the humiliation Annie is put through at the hands of a man who owes his very success to her kindness and charity (she did not even take interest on the original loan) are terrible. We must remember that the black-white relationship had been fashioned over three hundred years of slavery and intolerance. What is abhorrent to us was normal to both sides in the equation. What is abnormal is that it lasted such a long time.
The removal of the children back to their mother in California is triggered by the experience of Bailey when he sees the dead negro in the pond in town. He is terrified and confused about a situation he does not understand - why white people hate the negroes so much. Neither Momma nor Willie have a satisfactory explanation (read pp 192-193) Maya calls it "the humourless puzzle of inequality and hate.", Willie says he doesn't know what the world is coming to and Momma prays. It is inevitable that the children will face the harshness of segregated life more and more as they grow up. perhaps Momma rightly decides that the city, especially in wartime, will be a safer place than the rural backwardness of Stamps, where death is an arbitrary fact of life for black men.
There is an interlude of six months while Annie looks after the children in Los Angeles, where their father is living, while Vivian makes arrangements for them to move in with her in Oakland. With typical calm, Momma adapts instantly to city life, making it a facsimile of her life in Stamps before returning to Stamps, her job completed.
The children move first into the Baxter's apartment in Oakland, where the family has re-located after Grandfather Baxter's death. Instead of the slow sleepy life of the rural South, they now lead a free existence which includes the movies on Sundays instead of church. Their mother is still the same exotic creature who enraptures both children with midnight parties and treats. She is honest with them in telling them what she does for a living, taking them to see the clubs and gambling joints where she plays cards and works as a croupier. She is honest, in her own way, telling them that she is making a living in the best way she can and that she does not cheat people. The anecdote about her showdown with her business partner, when she shoots him and he blacks her eyes is indicative of her determination to be independent and courageous. Maya admires her and Bailey is besotted by her.
Again, try not to be too judgmental of Vivian. her lifestyle is unusual, and very different to that of Momma, and the children's father Daddy Bailey, but there is no doubt about her attraction and her glamour. Shortly after they children arrive, she marries a successful business man called Daddy Clidell who becomes "the first father (Maya) would know" and the new family moves to San Francisco at the outbreak of the war in America. Maya is 13, Bailey 14 at this time.
A lengthy description of San Francisco in wartime. The negro area is the Fillmore District, which was originally Japanese. The Japanese Americans were interned at the outbreak of the war after the Pearl Harbour raid. Into this comparatively small area of the city poured many black men and women to work in the factories. For the first time, blacks were able to work for fair wages, and enjoy thinking of themselves as "bosses" and "spenders". An increase in population and good wages inevitably meant an increased need for services and Vivian and her associates made a great deal of money running clubs, bars and gambling joints.
The white population would not have regarded itself as prejudiced in this area of the USA but nevertheless prejudice existed, it was more hidden than in a small place like Stamps. The more extreme forms of segregation were not as pronounced, though, as San Francisco had always regarded itself as a cosmopolitan city.
The anecdote about the black soldier on the bus sitting next to the white woman (p 208) shows the beginnings of negro independence. By the fifties, this had swollen into what became the Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King.
Maya's relationship with San Francisco is like a that she has with Vivian. She feels a strong sense of belonging and as though she is finally part of something important. The city is, like her mother, strong and alluring, its good and bad points side by side in an attractive whole.
As one of three coloured students in George Washington High, an all white high school, Maya experiences some hard lessons about her own intelligence. She is fortunate though to meet yet another important role model, in the form of Miss Kirwin, who teaches civics and current affairs. This woman is an excellent,, inspiring teacher, who treats all her students with scrupulous impartiality. Maya admires this and responds to it, as do all of Miss Kirwin's pupils. In addition, she receives a scholarship to night school and takes lessons in dance and drama. The school, California Labor School, was in fact on the "House Un-American Activities" list in the fifties, during the McCarthy Communist purges, but at the time Maya attends it fills a needed gap in her social and intellectual development, training her to be graceful and at ease with her physical self. As far, then, as education is concerned, Maya is experiencing for the first time what most white fourteen year old students would have taken very much for granted - a good education.
The other side of the coin is the social education Maya receives from Daddy Clidell and his circle of "friends" most of whom are con-men and of dubious background. She is taught what Daddy Clidell considers to be very important lessons in life - not to be anybody's "mark" (i.e. exploited, or a victim of fraud) The anecdote she uses, from one, "Red Leg", illustrates how some negroes retaliate against white oppression. It is a skilful trick, which succeeds because of the ingrained belief on the part of the white victim that all negroes are ignorant and easily duped. Maya admires the way that these men "use their intelligence to pry open the door of rejection" and "get some revenge into the bargain". Read p218.
The thing to note in this chapter is the contrast between the white set of ethics and the black. Are they, really so different?
Maya spends a vacation with her father, Daddy Bailey in Southern California and experiences a train of events which is to change her permanently from a child into a woman, albeit not a very worldly-wise one.
Her father's girlfriend, Dolores Stockland does not accept or like Maya from their first meeting. Their antagonism is probably a combination of jealousy and fear on the part of Dolores and awkwardness and inexperience on the part of Maya. They are physically incompatible, Dolores is small and dainty, Maya huge and gauche. Daddy Bailey does very little to help the situation, observing their discomfort with distant amusement. He has lied to Dolores about the ages of his children, telling her that they are eight and nine instead of sixteen and fifteen, and he has already delayed their marriage (in fact he marries someone else altogether in the end) so that it is not surprising that relations between Dolores and Maya are strained.
What accelerates their descent into violence is the trip that Daddy Bailey takes to Mexico with Maya. He goes regularly, apparently to buy supplies ( he is an excellent cook) but in reality he keeps at least one mistress there. Maya is invited on the trip and goes with him. They leave Dolores in a bad mood and this is made much worse when the trip takes twelve hours because they join a fiesta party. Daddy bailey spends a good deal of time with (several?) girlfriends and he is so drunk when he comes back to the cantina that Maya has to drive his car home. The incident is bizarre and made even worse for the girl by the total lack of seriousness with which Daddy Bailey treats it. Maya's relationship with her natural father is never a close one. There seems to be a lack of warmth and an innate dishonesty in Daddy Bailey which makes it impossible for anyone to get close to him. He is totally selfish and obsessed with his standing in whatever community he lives in. His flamboyance, and his command of grammar and fine speaking voice, together with a strong sense of self and confident bearing are probably the things which Maya admires, but she never describes him affectionately or with warmth.
The row which Dolores provokes when they return makes Bailey walk out on her, for which she blames Maya. It is certainly not the girl's fault, for there is certainly more wrong with the relationship than we are shown, but Maya is a convenient excuse for Dolores to give vent to her frustration. When Maya tries to apologise to Dolores she calls Vivian a whore( interesting that Maya's immediate thought is that if it is true she cannot go on living with Vivian.) The enormity of the thought is enough to make Maya slap Dolores and in return Dolores knifes Maya. (where did she get the blade?) Daddy Bailey deals with the situation by protecting his reputation. He takes Maya not to hospital, but to a friend's house to have the wound dressed. he cannot have his status in the community (a Mason, an Elk and the first negro Deacon in the Lutheran church) compromised by anyone scenting scandal about a domestic dispute.
Maya's response the next day is to run away. She cannot return to Vivian, because she fears that the discovery that someone has injured her daughter will result in another incident like the one which befell Freeman, and she cannot go back to Daddy Bailey so she takes to the streets.
Maya finds herself in a car junkyard with a group of under age vagrants, most older than she is, and of mixed races and backgrounds. They accept her without question and she becomes a member of their strange egalitarian group. They scavenge, do part time work and odd jobs, to earn enough for food. They have no homes, and sleep in individual cars in the scrap yard. There are strict rules; no theft.; no casual sex and presumably no drugs. They have access to a home (one of the boys, Lee, lives at home with his mother ) where they can do laundry. Maya spends a month with the group and at the end of it she has changed a great deal She regards herself as a member of the "brotherhood of man" and never again senses herself "outside the pale of the human race". She achieves a sense of independence and acquires a sense of tolerance which stay with her.
At the end of the month, when her cut is healed, she telephones home and goes back to Vivian. The casual tolerance which has been so characteristic of the group of youths in the car yard is also apparent in Vivian, who accepts her with no questions at all, "a fine lady" ( or a really inadequate parent?)
Bailey leaves home at sixteen, unable to "do with or do without" Vivian. He imitates the type of men he knows she likes, "big men in the rackets" and acquires a prostitute, a diamond ring and flash clothes. She retaliates by ordering him to stop, he refuses and Maya feels like "Switzerland in World War 2" while they battle it out. The end comes with bitter words and Bailey leaves, setting up in a flat of his own. Vivian is still mother enough to get him a start as a dining car waiter on the Southern Pacific railway, but once more Maya faces a transition. Bailey has left and her life will not be the same again. Again note how Vivian deals with the situation, allowing Bailey to cut loose from her and making the break as painless as she can in the circumstances. Is this the action of a caring, realistic parent - an adult treating a young man as a fellow adult- or is it another example of the casual way she has always treated her family?
Maya decides to get herself a job, too and typically decides to be the first black employee on the streetcar system. She sets herself to be persistent in the face of obvious prejudice and eventually manages to get herself employed. (Note, there was no law to say that negroes could not be employed in certain jobs, it was just not common practice.) During her struggle, she begins to move into a more adult relationship with Vivian, who gives her backing to the plan, not because she has any thoughts about white injustice, but because she admires a fighter. The term which Maya spends working on the streetcars makes her grow up even more quickly and when she returns to school she realises that there is a gulf between her and her fellow students. She knows that she is ignorant of many things, but also that she will not learn what she needs to know in school, so she loses interest in it, although she still continues to attend so that she can graduate. With typical Baxter accommodation, Vivian backs Maya's truancy as long as she is aware of it.
Reading the novel "The Well of Loneliness" convinces Maya that she must be a lesbian. Note her complete ignorance of both lesbianism and hermaphrodism, and how, ironically, she accepts the transvestites and homosexuals who frequent Vivian's house as normal members of the family's circle. Vivian's explanations of Maya's maturing sexuality are frank and reassuring, but the sight of a classmate's breasts when she stays overnight at Maya's house is sufficient to convince her once again that she is not "normal". She decides that what she needs to make her a proper woman, is a boyfriend so with typical Baxter thoroughness, she picks a handsome boy who lives nearby and asks him to have intercourse with her. The transaction is brief and businesslike and leaves her feeling that "not much had happened". In fact that brief encounter leaves her pregnant.
Maya conceals her pregnancy from everyone except Bailey, managing to finish high school and get her diploma. She is fortunate that Vivian is away for some months, opening and establishing a night club in Alaska. When she reveals her condition she is three weeks short of having the baby. When her mother finds out there is "no overt or subtle condemnation", because she is "Vivian Baxter Jackson". Maya delivers her son without fuss and after a short period of terror at his physical presence in her life, accepts him, and herself as a mother. At this point the first episode of the autobiography ends.
Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope