Reverend Howard Thomas, the presiding church elder in the district, visits Stamps every three months. He stays with Momma on Saturday and delivers a sermon in church on Sunday. Maya and Bailey hate him because he always eats the best parts of Sunday dinner.
Momma does not believe it is safe for black people to speak to whites and certainly not with insolence. She does not speak too harshly of whites even in their absence unless she generically refers to whites as “they.” Maya says that Momma would have called herself a realist rather than a coward. Once, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman took refuge in Momma’s Store. He eventually left, only to be apprehended later. In court, he testified that he had stayed with Mrs. Henderson. The judge subpoenaed Mrs. Henderson only to realize to his surprise that the accused had referred to a black woman as “Mrs.” This unusual title, usually reserved for whites, indicates Momma’s high status in her community.
A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt . . .See Important Quotations Explained
One Christmas, Maya and Bailey’s parents send them gifts. The children go outside and cry, wondering what they did wrong to be sent away in the first place. Having convinced themselves that their mother was dead, they find it hard to imagine that she could “laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children.” Momma admonishes them for being ungrateful. Later, Maya and Bailey destroy the blond, blue-eyed China doll their mother sent.
Big Bailey, the children’s father, comes to visit Stamps a year later unexpectedly. He owns a car, and he speaks like a white man. His height and his handsome features astound Maya. He stays in Stamps for three weeks before surprising the children with the news that he will drive them to St. Louis to see their mother. Momma seems sad, but she simply tells the children to behave well. Maya cannot believe that Big Bailey is her father and she regards him as a complete stranger. Her brother, Bailey, jokes and laughs easily with Big Bailey.
When the children see their mother for the first time, Vivian’s beauty strikes Maya dumb, and Bailey falls in love with her. Maya surmises that the intensity of Bailey’s feelings stems from the fact that he and his mother resemble each other in physical beauty and personality. When Big Bailey leaves for California a few days later, Maya feels indifferent because she considers him a stranger who has now left her with another stranger.
Having landed in St. Louis during the heyday of Prohibition, Bailey and Maya meet all kinds of underground organized crime figures. Vivian’s mother, Grandmother Baxter, entertains these men, and she has influence with the police. Vivian’s brothers have city jobs, positions rarely held by black men, and they have a reputation for meanness, beating up on both whites and blacks. Maya stands in awe of her uncles, whom she describes as mean, though never cruel. They treat the children well and share stories about them as toddlers, even telling Maya how she got her nickname. When Bailey was less than three years old he learned that Maya, whose birth name is Marguerite, was his sister, and he began calling her “Mya sister” and then simply “My,” which later morphed into “Maya.” Uncle Tommy even tells Maya that she should not worry about not being pretty, because she is smart. Bailey and Maya live with their maternal grandparents for six months before moving in with Vivian and her older, fat boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, who feels insecure about his relationship with Vivian. The shift in location does not affect Maya, who never feels like she belongs anywhere. She feels that she and Bailey have been fated to live differently from other children.
Momma’s philosophy regarding the safest way to deal with whites typifies the attitudes prevalent during the Jim Crow era—the period between 1877 and the mid-1960’s during which a strict racial caste system relegated blacks in the South to the position of second-class citizens. Lynch mobs represented only one danger faced by American blacks in the rural South. Segregation became more than a physical reality since it influenced the culture and the mind-set of the black population as well. Specific comments about particular people could prove dangerous if those comments reached the wrong ears. Some people might have called Momma a coward, Maya acknowledges, but she adds that Momma would have called herself a realist. Momma survived the odds stacked against her and became a successful businesswoman. She saved the Store in the Great Depression while many white businesses failed all over the country. In Angelou’s autobiography, Momma emerges as a strong, determined survivor. Momma chooses her battles well. For example, although Momma does not go out of her way to confront whites and their racism, she offers her help to those who find themselves mired in such confrontations. She and Willie aid a black man fleeing from a lynch mob despite the danger such actions might present to themselves, revealing their quiet bravery. Angelou remarks that when Momma reveals herself as the “Mrs. Henderson” subpoenaed by the judge, whites considered the incident a joke, but the black community remembered the incident as a testimony to Momma’s stature.
Angelou’s memory of Big Bailey reveals that he stands completely out of place in the rural South. She remarks that he wears tight clothes made of wool and that he pronounces English even better than the school principal. His behavior indicates that he tried hard to make a big impression. His brashness upset the quiet balance of routine in Momma’s family. His car, his accent, and his clothing were all marks of middle-class status, but he worked as a porter in a California hotel. Angelou never says whether Big Bailey acquired his possessions by saving his wages or by other, perhaps illegal means. Indeed, intelligent black men with goals and aspirations in Big Bailey’s generation had few legal avenues to use to achieve success. In what is known as the Great Migration, between one and two million black farmers left the South from 1914 to 1930 in search of work in northern cities, where factory owners promised but never provided high-wage jobs. The black migration from the rural countryside to the cities divided blacks from their heritage and their roots, stranding them in a world where, it seemed, one had to look, talk, and act white in order to succeed.
Despite her re-location to the loud, exotic, chaotic, and alien city of St. Louis, to a certain extent Maya shows her ability to engage with her new environment. She does not find true happiness in her relationship with her mother, but she meets a host of strong-willed and idiosyncratic relatives who begin to improve her attitude about herself. She remembers that one of her uncles continually tells her not to worry about her appearance but rather to cherish her intelligence. Moreover, Maya can now place herself in a larger familial context and learn a little about what her life was like before she was sent away, including endearing, love-affirming stories about her brother, Bailey. She learns that, as a three-year-old, Bailey took responsibility for teaching his sister how to walk.
Maya’s Grandmother Baxter was nearly white and was raised by a German family. She married a black man but chose not to pass as white, and she achieved financial success and security by connecting with the criminal underworld. Maya’s grandfather and uncles are rough city folk who have cultivated a necessary toughness that wards off abuse and exploitation, and her mother’s exotic lifestyle seems to fit right in with Maya’s unusual family. Despite the lack of familiarity, Maya has landed in a more familial world where, she says, she feels a need to appreciate her benefactors and fears being returned to Stamps. She soon learns that she has not adjusted well and that the family she meets in St. Louis practices criminal behavior, which affects her personally.