Summary and Analysis
The double-ended tragicomic scenario involving Maya's aching tooth epitomizes Angelou's ability to interweave serious theme with gentle humor. Against the cruelty and lack of professionalism of a dentist (ironically named Dr. Lincoln) who would vilify a suffering child and refuse her medical attention because of her race, the author inserts bits of hyperbole and personification:
"I prayed earnestly that I'd be allowed to sit under the house and have the building collapse on my left jaw."
"I had frozen to the pain, my family nearly had to tie me down to take the toothbrush away."
". . . the pain was my world, an aura that haloed me for three feet around."
"If one was dying, it had to be done in style if the dying took place in whitefolks' part of town."
"How could one or two or even a mouth of angry tooth roots meet a wagonload of powhitetrash children, endure their idiotic snobbery and not feel less important?"
A greater irony rests on the fact that, during the Depression, Annie Henderson served as unofficial small business loan officer to blacks and whites. Because Dr. Lincoln was one of the recipients of her largesse, she expects a reciprocity that he is unwilling to provide. Not only must she identify herself with the disrespectful use of her first name and endure the haughty white attendant's shutting the door in her face, she must counter her granddaughter's degradation and dehumanization when the dentist sneers, "I'd rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's." In the aftermath, Annie takes some of the sting from the incident by glorying in her modest retribution — the extortion of ten extra dollars in purported interest.
The fantasized version of the dialogue that Maya concocts to salvage her family's pride expands the motif of hyperbole:
"When you get settled in your next place, you will be a vegetarian caring for dogs with the mange, cats with the cholera and cows with the epizootic."
". . . she waved her handkerchief at the nurse and turned her into a crocus sack of chicken feed." In Maya's mind, Grandmother Henderson looms all-powerful, even supernatural — capable of neutralizing the ugliness that exists in the real world. Maya concludes, "I was so proud of being her granddaughter and sure that some of her magic must have come down to me." The poignant truth is that, for all Annie Henderson's land ownership, shrewd business acumen, and philanthropy toward Stamps' citizens of both races and for all her bravado in facing up to Dr. Lincoln and his rude white nurse, the prevailing atmosphere of distrust, bigotry, and hatred prevents her from receiving her share of community respect and status. Living on society's fringe, she remains largely unacknowledged, except by her black neighbors, son, and grandchildren.
Angelou, a master of language, strengthens the historic significance of her autobiography with strict attention to detail. For example, her narrative features entertainment and trade names from the period. In addition to the list of popularized fictional characters, such as the Green Hornet, Mickey Mouse, the Katzenjammer Kids, and the Shadow, in this chapter she names "Milky Ways, Mounds, Mr. Goodbars and Hersheys with Almonds," "Mum and Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder," and "Greyhound." Likewise, Annie peppers her speech with the dialect common to southern blacks, as in "He tole that little snippity nurse of his'n," "I figger," and "I ain't gonna mess around in no niggah's mouth." These touches, like period relics, anchor the narrative in a time and place and provide the texture of verbal authenticity.
The maturity of her grandchildren puts an unfair burden on Annie Henderson. After Bailey's close encounter with the decayed corpse, she knows that he faces the "humorless puzzle of inequality and hate." Concealing her motives beneath her "African-bush secretiveness," Annie scrimps to accumulate enough money to return first Maya, then Bailey a month later, to California. The order of their going suggests that Momma worries more about the vulnerability of Maya than that of Bailey.
crushed aspirins or oil of cloves home remedies applied to an aching tooth or gum.
R.O.T.C. Reserve Officers' Training Corps, a military body which demands exacting posture and decorum.
epizootic an epidemic within a herd of animals.
crocus sack a burlap bag, often called a "croker sack" or a "gunny sack."
peckerwood worthless, untrustworthy riffraff.
Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall and George McCready three significant screen actors of the 1930s and 40s. Rains (1889-1967) earned fame early in his career for his performances in The Invisible Man, Notorious,Robin Hood, The Prince and the Pauper, and Casablanca. Herbert Marshall (1890-1966), an urbane British leading man who lost a leg in World War I, starred in I Was a Spy, The Dark Angel, A Bill of Divorcement, and The Little Foxes. George McCready (1909-73) left banking to act in Gilda, Paths of Glory, and Commandos Strike at Dawn.
D'Artagnan one of the heroes of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" one of Edgar Allan Poe's most dismal tales of horror, which features the theme of premature burial.
"blows and scores" ago that is, after a protracted history of assaults and retaliations.
djinn a spirit, or jinni of Muslim lore which, like the supernatural servant in Aladdin's lamp, can be summoned to assist humans.