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.