This summer I will learn how to express a complete thought without letting others interrupt me. And I’m not talking just about verbal interruptions but about facial expressions as well. Have you ever tried speaking to someone whose body is present but whose mind is on a kite headed elsewhere. Or whose cement face tells you they have no interest at all in what you’re saying. It can be so distracting that it’s easy to lose your train of thought.
A few weeks ago I read Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. It’s the story of Marguerite Johnson before she became Maya Angelou. It’s the story about the heavy burden of Blackness. It’s the story of how childhood sticks to you like glue all your life no matter what you do. It’s also the story of how a woman learned to articulate her feelings so that she could defy the odds and sing her song.
When she was a child, Maya and her brother were sent to live with their Southern grandmother. Maya shares with us her feeling of abandonment, the harshness of bigotry, the shame for having been abused, and the burden of the resulting insecurities.
After Maya was raped, she stopped talking. But she had a life line thrown at her by Mrs. Bertha Flowers, the aristocrat of the local Black community, who “had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her.” Mrs Flowers had no intention, she told Maya, of making her talk. But that was no reason to abandon language. And it was good that Maya read but reading wasn’t enough. “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” So Mrs. Flowers lent Maya books but on the condition that she was to read them aloud even if just to herself.
So Maya read and started to fly. But then the racist slurs would send her back to her cage. “It was awful to be Negro and have no control” over one’s own life. And living with this prejudice coated her with a sensation of ugliness that was like an “uninvited guest who wouldn’t leave.”
In her teens, Maya went to live with her mother in San Francisco. Here the Blacks had learned to occupy space differently than those in the South. Her mother’s boyfriend, Daddy Clidell, taught her to play poker and blackjack. Because by playing cards you can learn to read a man’s character. Daddy Clidell also introduced Maya to a group of professional con artists who, as part of her education, taught her all about conning so she herself would never become anyone’s mark.
The most important lesson they gave her was this: “Anything that works against you can also work for you once you understand the Principle of Reverse.” And what gave a Black man the most power was the white man’s prejudice. The Black con man who could act the stupidest always won out over the powerful and arrogant white man. Like Detective Colombo whose apparent ineptitude makes the suspect dismiss him with arrogance thus unsuspectingly falls into a trap.
And years later, when Maya decided that she wanted to become the first Black ticket taker on the San Francisco street cars, she made sure to give her resume a narrative:
“Sitting at a side table my mind and I wove a cat’s ladder of near truths and total lies. I kept my face blank (an old art) and wrote quickly the fable of Marguerite Johnson, aged nineteen, former companion and driver for Mrs Annie Henderson (a White Lady) in Stamps, Arkansas.”
The narrative was convincing and Maya became the first Black to work on San Francisco streetcars.
Ahhh, there are so many new narratives for us to create. And I will now be focused on creating my own.
Thank you Maya.
Related: The Bluest Eye