His bigness shocked me. His shoulders were so wide I thought he’d have trouble getting in the door. He was taller than anyone I had seen, and if he wasn’t fat, which I knew he wasn’t, then he was fat-like. His clothes were too small too. They were tighter and woolier than was customary in Stamps. And he was blindingly handsome.
Here, Maya describes her father Big Bailey. When Big Bailey returns to Stamps, a seven-year-old Maya views him as a mysterious being from another world. Even his very physical presence sets him apart from the rest of the blacks in the community, and particularly from Maya, who considers herself to be quite ugly. Maya sees no similarity between the two of them. This initial encounter highlights the differences between father and daughter, portending a distant relationship.
Whenever he thought about it, Dad asked, “Are you comfortable back there, Daddy’s baby?” He never waited to hear my answer, which was “Yes, sir,” before he’d resume his conversation with Bailey.
On the way to St. Louis, Bailey Junior sits up front with Big Bailey, while Maya sits in the back, overlooked and ignored. In this scene as described by Maya, Big Bailey makes clear his preference for his son, whom he sees as a person of value, to the point of letting him take the steering wheel. Maya, on the other hand, lacks any personhood or identity of her own. Big Bailey even strips her of her own name and her voice.
He asked the guard if he would like to marry me. Their Spanish was choppier than my school version but I understood. My father added as an inducement the fact that I was only fifteen years old. At once the guard leaned into the car and caressed my cheek. I supposed that he thought before that I was not only ugly but old, too, and that now the knowledge that I was probably unused attracted him.
When Maya and her father go to Mexico, Maya explains how Big Bailey offers to give her to the border guard. While he may be joking, Big Bailey demonstrates a heightened level of vulgarity, opening up Maya to the guard’s inappropriate touch. Big Bailey’s words show his complete unfitness as a parent, which only grows throughout their Mexican misadventure as he continues to put his daughter at risk through his drunkenness and his inattention.
In the Mexican bar, Dad had an air of relaxation which I had never seen visit him before. There was no need to pretend in front of those Mexican peasants. As he was, just being himself, he was sufficiently impressive to them. He was Black. He spoke Spanish fluently. He had money and he could drink tequila with the best of them. The women liked him too. He was tall and handsome and generous.
Maya sees a different side of her father when they visit a small town in Mexico. Big Bailey can be himself here because the people here admire him just as he is. In Mexico, his blackness is not a negative so his positive attributes can shine. In truth, Big Bailey does have a list of accomplishments but they will never be appreciated by white America. Only in Mexico does he feel he gets the respect that he deserves.
Could I imagine the scandal if people found out that his, Bailey Johnson’s, daughter had been cut by his lady friend? He was after all a Mason, an Elk, a naval dietician and the first Negro deacon in the Lutheran church.
After Dolores stabs Maya, Big Bailey decides against immediately taking her for proper medical treatment because he cares more about protecting his reputation than her physical well-being. Just as when Maya was young, he still derives his identity from how other people perceive him. Big Bailey, with his inflated sense of self, cares more about being a big shot among a large group of people than being a responsible parent to one child.