One of the most powerful character portrayals in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is “Momma,” or her grandmother Annie Henderson. Owner and proprietor of the only store owned by an African American in Stamps, Arkansas, she seemed to her granddaughter the epitome of calm competence and absolute faith. She enjoyed great respect among her people and was able to ride out the time of the Depression by devising a system of barter through which her regular customers could exchange what they needed from her store against government-issued rations. Even though this meant that her own family ate powdered eggs while her customers did better, it also ensured that the store remained financially viable in lean years.
Momma’s faith in God and her abiding by the way of Jesus is her most visible and consistent character trait. She is not afraid, nor does she lose her dignity before the “powhitetrash” girls who mock her at her store. However, the lesson she seeks to impart to her grandchildren is always one of endurance, not assertion, and never aggression. This is purely because of her concern for her family’s safety. Momma’s injunction to her grandchildren to use the “paths of life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe” is meant to be an insurance to their future well-being. She represents generations of African Americans who had negotiated the worst of the slavery days and were keeping their peace in a society still rife with racism.
But Marguerite and Bailey Johnson represented a completely different generation who were coming of age at a time when African Americans were moving away from the rural hinterlands to larger cities in search of work. Their parents had already established their lives far from the barren landscape of Stamps. Marguerite’s journey to becoming Maya Angelou, the immensely gifted cultural and political icon, had already begun while she was under her grandmother’s wings. How her life unfolded and the changes she was witness to in American society reflect the manner in which young African Americans responded to their elders’ advice about walking on the “safe path.”
The Civil Rights movement in America in the 1950s and 1960s was led by Southern African Americans who took a stand against segregation and racial discrimination. Whether it was education, seating in public travel and using public facilities, or discriminatory practices by private restaurants or stores, African Americans began to “sit in” and demand the repeal of the segregationist Jim Crow laws and succeeded in having them removed by 1965. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was triggered in December of 1955 by Rosa Parks’ quiet but firm refusal to vacate a seat for a white man. Black as well as white civil rights activists from the ages of eighteen to forty rode as Freedom Riders on interstate buses into the segregationist states of the South in 1961. They faced mob violence and police brutality and showed an appetite for confrontation that went completely against the policy of playing “safe.”
Along with a more visible and vocal presence at demonstrations, African Americans were also organizing under newer banners that spread the message of racial equality. While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been in existence since 1909, the movement for racial equality got a substantial boost from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), whose first president was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This, more than anything else, kept the faith for African American youth. They were not perceiving a belief in God to be a test of endurance anymore, but a commitment to walking on the path for justice.
Maya Angelou, who had taken up dancing to calypso music at nightclubs in San Francisco in the 1950s, met Rev. Martin Luther King in 1960. She decided to apply her talent for the larger cause. She and the novelist John Oliver Killens arranged an ambitious fundraiser for the SCLC called the Cabaret For Freedom. She also served as the Northern Coordinator for the SCLC. She stayed active in the African American movement for their cultural capital and identity. Angelou lived in Ghana for some years, where she worked as a journalist, as an administrator at the University, in radio broadcasting, and performing plays. She had met Malcolm X in Ghana when he was visiting there. On her return to the US in 1965, she was to be part of Malcolm X's attempts to build the Organization of Afro-American Unity, but he was assassinated in early 1965.
Momma’s desire for her grandchildren to follow the safe path may not have materialized in quite the way her generation had urged. But in the choices and actions of her granddaughter Maya Angelou and in the courage and faith shown by Rev. Martin Luther King and millions of others, she would have been content that God’s will was expressing itself.