Summary and Analysis Chapters 1-3


After the divorce of their parents, three-year-old Maya and her brother, Bailey, Jr., a year her senior, tagged like freight, arrive at the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store, Momma Henderson's grocery and feed store in Stamps, Arkansas. Daily, field workers pass through the store to buy supplies, impressing the Maya character, or the speaker, with the anguish of their ill-paid labors. From the outset, the author demonstrates a humanistic sympathy for the downtrodden Southern black. Her skilled theatrical eye differentiates black misery as seen by soft early morning glow and later, by the harsher afternoon sun, which spotlights the field laborer's hand-to-mouth struggle against low wages, long hours, and soul-wearying drudgery. As a blessing on this near-slave level of subsistence, the author discloses Momma's simple pre-dawn prayer, a stoic litany which thanks God for one more day of life.

At age five, Maya, later singled out by Momma for her tender heart, is astute enough to realize that Uncle Willie's contorted body lessens his manhood. He appeases psychic pain by concealing his affliction from two strangers from Little Rock. As an adult, Angelou probes a greater denigration by conjuring up the "cement faces and eyes" of Klansmen "covered with graves' dust and age without beauty of learning," which symbolize the hatred of the most rabid of Arkansas racists. Uncle Willie, too lame to ward off the feared night riders, moans his helplessness from layers of potatoes and onions, which conceal his form in the vegetable bin "like a casserole."


c/o a postal abbreviation for "in care of."

The Brazos a Texas river, flowing past Waco to Freeport on the Gulf of Mexico through stereotypical cowboy country.

juice harp(Jew's harp) a metal or bamboo percussion instrument common to Europe and Asia since ancient times and originally named a jaw harp. Holding the harp between the teeth, the player vibrates the central stem with strums of the finger while changing positions of the mouth, tongue, and jaw to alter the resulting twangy tones.

fo' bits and six bits fifty cents and seventy-five cents.

paranoia an abnormal mental state which often causes the sufferer to feel persecuted.

cotton bolls the hard, prickly, taloned, fibrous pod which encases a growing fluff of cotton and thwarts the picker's efforts.

Butler; Henley Samuel Butler (1835-1902), author of Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh, and William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), author of the poem "Invictus," which students often memorize for its bold espousal of self-determination and individualism.

abacuses counting frames composed of color-coded beads that are slid along rods or wires for quick hand calculation; still popular in Japan and other Eastern countries.