Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1399
When Marguerite Johnson was three years old, her parents separated, and she was sent, with her four-year-old brother, to live with her paternal grandmother in Arkansas. She remembers that when they reached the segregated part of the train journey, they were given fried chicken and potato salad by the other Black passengers, who felt sorry for the young children traveling alone.
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Marguerite’s grandmother, whom she called Momma, kept a store in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, and lived with her son behind the store, selling general merchandise and running a lunch counter for local workers. The store was opposite a cotton field, and during the picking season, Momma would get out of bed at four a.m. every day to sell food to the pickers before they went to work. In the morning, the cotton pickers would be cheerful, bragging about the amount they were going to pick, but when they returned at the end of the day, they were disconsolate, for they had never earned enough to pay their debts. Marguerite says that, having seen the harsh reality of their lives, she has ever since been enraged by depictions of cheerful cotton-pickers singing songs.
Momma’s son, Marguerite’s uncle Willie, was disabled, supposedly from having been dropped on his head by his babysitter at the age of three. His face was “pulled down on the left side, as if a pulley had been attached to his lower teeth,” he used a walking stick, and his left hand was much smaller than his right. A proud, sensitive man, he was all too aware of the effect his disability had on others, many of whom also resented his comparatively comfortable life as the son of a store-owner.
Uncle Willie never tried to hide his disability, except on one occasion Marguerite recalls, when she came home from school to find that he was standing erect behind the counter in the store, talking to two strangers. His walking stick was nowhere to be seen. The couple were schoolteachers from Little Rock, and Uncle Willie never explained why he had hidden his disability from them. Marguerite surmises that he must have become “tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame.” The idea that he had wanted to be like everyone else, without arousing contempt or pity, for part of an afternoon, made her feel closer to her uncle.
The chapter ends with a description of Marguerite’s reading habits. She fell in love with Shakespeare, her “first white love,” and also enjoyed Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray, and Henley. Black writers such as Dunbar, Hughes, Johnson, and Du Bois excited a “young and loyal passion,” but it was Shakespeare who had written the sonnet beginning “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” a familiar state of affairs for Marguerite. The fact that Shakespeare was a white man did not matter to her, particularly as he had been dead for such a long time. However, Marguerite knew Shakespeare’s whiteness would be important to Momma, so she abandoned the project of memorizing a scene from The Merchant of Venice and chose “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson instead.
Marguerite helped Momma in the store and became adept at weighing and guessing the weight of the flour, mash, meal, sugar, and corn they sold. Until she left Arkansas at the age of thirteen, the store was her favorite place to be, particularly in the early morning, when it was empty, and the evening, when it was similarly peaceful. One evening, however, the peace was disturbed by the arrival of a former sheriff on horseback, who warned Momma that a white woman had been attacked by a Black man that day and “Some of the boys’ll be coming over here later.” By the “boys,” he meant members of the Ku Klux Klan, who might harm Uncle Willie or any other Black man, however unconnected with the attack.
The Klan did not, in fact, attack the store, but Uncle Willie hid all night in the bin where vegetables were kept, moaning as though he really had been guilty of some crime. Marguerite knew that the former sheriff thought he was doing a good deed by warning them about the Klan, but she saw him as inflicting bitter humiliation on the Black residents of Stamps, “saving those deserving serfs from the laws of the land, which he condoned.”
Marguerite describes Mr. McElroy, a big man who lived in a big house next door to Momma’s store. He was one of the few Black men Marguerite ever saw wearing a suit. She was impressed by his independence of mind, as he talked freely with Uncle Willie, ignoring the popular prejudice against the disabled, and never went to church. From her current perspective, however, Marguerite sees him as a simple, uninteresting man who sold patent medicine to even simpler people. Much of the mystery that surrounded him came from his independent status as a man who owned his own house and land.
The most important person in Marguerite’s life was her brother, Bailey, a scapegrace who used his privileged position in the family to help his only sister and avenge insults against her. She describes him as the one person in whom she had absolute faith, her “Kingdom Come.” She ends the chapter by describing the trips she and her brother would occasionally take to the white area of town to buy fresh meat, which was sold all year round there, as white people had refrigerators. Stamps was so completely segregated that most of its Black inhabitants had no idea what white people looked like. Even though Marguerite did not believe some of the more outlandish ideas, such as the notion that white women’s breasts were built into their dresses, she never thought of the white people as entirely real, seeing them as a strange and alien species.
The formal segregation, and the various types of informal separation, between Black and white people are obliquely and continuously explored during the opening chapters of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. These differences between Black and white only become the main focus at the end of chapter 4, but they are a constant underlying presence from the very beginning, when Angelou associates her Blackness with public humiliation and shabby clothes, even when in the context of a church where the congregation is entirely Black.
It quickly becomes clear that white people are far more often imagined than encountered in the world of Angelou’s childhood. She experienced segregation initially as a comforting and reassuring system; her main recollection of her childhood train journey to Arkansas is the kindness of the Black passengers who share their food with the children. The town of Stamps is so thoroughly segregated that she almost never encounters a white person except when venturing into their part of town for the luxury of fresh meat, which many of her neighbors cannot afford. The white people there seem like a separate species who walk, talk, and behave differently.
When white people do come to the Black area, this is a sign of trouble. In chapter 3, a former sheriff comes to warn Momma of a possible attack by the Ku Klux Klan. Although the attack never happens, Angelou remembers the pain and humiliation of the experience, much of which is occasioned by the sheriff’s attitude. She recalls:
His confidence that my uncle and every other Black man who heard of the Klan’s coming would scurry under their houses to hide in chicken droppings was too humiliating to bear. Without waiting for Momma’s thanks, he rode out of the yard, sure that things were as they should be and that he was a gentle squire, saving those deserving serfs from the laws of the land, which he condoned.
Here, the language of medieval chivalry underlines the former sheriff’s assumption of superiority in his status as a savior. The word “gentle” economically equates kindness with high birth, while the word “squire” similarly yokes the author’s evocation of the Middle Ages with the later usage of the same word to mean a landed proprietor. The whole passage emphasizes the condescension and feudal attitudes of the former sheriff, who is impressed by the nobility of his own conduct.