Flowers by Maya Angelou
Angelou is an American author, actress, civil-rights activist, poet, and
professor. She has written multiple volumes of poetry and a series of popular
autobiographical works, including Wouldn't
Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993). This essay is a chapter from her
first autobiographical volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).
Recent books include Phenomenal Woman (2000) and Elder Grace (2000).
For nearly a year, I sopped around the house, the Store, the school and the
church, like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible. Then I met, or rather got to
know, the lady who threw me my first lifeline.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers was the aristocrat of Black Stamps. She had the grace of
control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days
it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her. She was
thin without the taut look of wiry people, and her printed voile dresses and
flowered hats were as right for her as denim overalls for a farmer. She was our
answer to the richest white woman in town.
Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but
then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle
her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn't
encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too.
I don't think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow
widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow
effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her.
The action was so graceful and inclusively benign.
She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained
throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be.
Momma had a strange relationship with her. Most often when she passed on the
road in front of the Store, she spoke to Momma in that soft yet carrying voice, "Good
day, Mrs. Henderson." Momma
responded with "How
you, Sister Flowers?"
Mrs. Flowers didn't0
belong to our church, nor was she Momma's
familiar. Why on earth did she insist on calling her Sister Flowers? Shame made
me want to hide my face. Mrs. Flowers deserved better than to be called Sister.
Then, Momma left out the verb. Why not ask, "How
are you, Mrs. Flowers?"
the unbalanced passion of the young, I hated her for showing her ignorance to
Mrs. Flowers. It didn't
occur to me for many years that they were as alike as sisters, separated only by
I was upset, neither of the women was in the least shaken by what I thought an
unceremonious greeting. Mrs. Flowers would continue
her easy gait up the hill to her little bungalow, and Momma kept on shelling
peas or doing whatever had brought her to the front porch.
though, Mrs. Flowers would drift off the road and down to the Store and Momma
would say to me, "Sister,
you go on and play."
As she left I would hear the beginning of an intimate conversation. Momma
persistently using the wrong verb, or none at all.
and Sister Wilcox is sholy the meanest."
Is? Oh, please, not is, Momma, for two or more. But they talked, and from the
side of the building where I waited for the ground to open up and swallow me, I
heard the soft-voiced Mrs. Flowers and the textured voice of my grandmother
merging and melting. They were interrupted from time to time by giggles that
must have come from Mrs. Flowers (Momma never giggled in her life). Then she was
appealed to me because she was like people I had never met personally. Like
women in English novels who walked the moors (whatever they were) with their
loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance. Like the women who sat in front of
roaring fireplaces, drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones
and crumpets. Women who walked over the heath
read morocco-bound books and had two last names divided by a hyphen. It would be
safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself.
acted just as refined as white folks in the movies and books and she was more
beautiful, for none of them could have come near that warm color without looking
gray by comparison.
was fortunate that I never saw her in the company of po-white folks. For since
they tend to think of their whiteness as an evenizer, I'm
certain that I would have had to hear her spoken to commonly as Bertha, and my
image of her would have been shattered like the unmendable Humpty
summer afternoon, sweet-milk fresh in my memory, she stopped at the Store to buy
provisions. Another Negro woman of her health and age would have been expected
to carry the paper sacks home in one hand, but Momma said, "Sister
send Bailey up to your house with these things."
smiled that slow dragging smile, "Thank
you, Mrs. Henderson. I'd
prefer Marguerite, though."
My name was beautiful when she said it. "I've
been meaning to talk to her, anyway."
gave each other age-group looks.
all right then. Sister, go and change your dress. You going to Sister Flowers'."
chifforobe was a maze. What on earth did one put on to go to Mrs. Flowers'
house? I knew I shouldn't
put on a Sunday dress. It might be sacrilegious. Certainly not a housedress,
since I was already wearing a fresh one. I chose a school dress, naturally. It
was formal without suggesting that going to Mrs. Flowers'
house was equivalent to attending church.
trusted myself back into the Store.
you look nice."
I had chosen the right thing, for once. . . .
was a little path beside the rocky road, and Mrs. Flowers walked in front
swinging her arms and picking her way over the stones.
said, without turning her head to me, "I
doing very good school work, Marguerite, but that it's
all written. The teachers report that they have trouble getting you to talk in
We passed the triangular farm on our left and the path widened to allow us to
walk together. I hung back in the separate unasked and unanswerable questions.
and walk along with me, Marguerite."
have refused even if I wanted to. She pronounced my name so nicely. Or more
correctly, she spoke each word with such clarity that I was certain a foreigner
understand English could have understood her.
no one is going to make you talk,
no one can. But bear in mind, language is man's
way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which
separates him from the lower animals."
That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need time to think about it.
grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That's
good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It
takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning."
memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed so valid and
said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I
must read them aloud. She suggested that I try to make a sentence sound in as
many different ways as possible.
accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been badly handled."
My imagination boggled at the punishment I would deserve if in fact I did abuse
a book of Mrs. Flowers'.
Death would be too kind and brief.
odors in the house surprised me. Somehow I had never connected Mrs. Flowers with
food or eating or any other common experience of common people. There must have
been an outhouse, too, but my mind never recorded it.
sweet scent of vanilla had met us as she opened the door.
made tea cookies this morning. You see, I had planned to invite you for cookies
and lemonade so we could have this little chat. The lemonade is in the icebox."
followed that Mrs. Flowers would have ice on an ordinary day, when most families
in our town bought ice late on Saturdays only a few times during the summer to
be used in the wooden ice-cream freezers.
took the bags from me and disappeared through the kitchen door. I looked around
the room that I had never in my wildest fantasies imagined I would see. Browned
photographs leered or threatened from the walls and the white, freshly done
curtains pushed against themselves and against the wind. I wanted to gobble up
the room entire and take it to Bailey, who would help me analyze and enjoy it.
a seat, Marguerite. Over there by the table."
carried a platter covered with a tea towel. Although she warned that she hadn't
tried her hand at baking sweets for some time, I was certain that like
everything else about her the cookies would be perfect.
were flat round wafers, slightly browned on the edges and butter-yellow in the
center. With the cold lemonade they were sufficient for childhood's
lifelong diet. Remembering my manners, I took nice little lady-like bites off
the edges. She said she had made them expressly for me and that she had a few in
the kitchen that I could take home to my brother. So I jammed on whole cake in
my mouth and the rough crumbs scratched the insides of my jaws, and if I hadn't
had to swallow, it would have been a dream come true.
I ate she began the first of what we later called 'my
lessons in living."
She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of
illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and
even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen
carefully to what country people called mother wit. That is those homely sayings
was couched the collective wisdom of generations.
I finished the cookies she brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book
from the bookcase. I had read A Tale of
Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened
the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life.
was the best of times and the worst of times."
Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly
singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or
were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began
cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was
nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn't
really heard, heard to understand, a single word.
do you like that?"
occurred to me that she expected a response. The sweet vanilla flavor was still
on my tongue and her reading was a wonder in my ears. I had to speak.
was the least I could do, but it was the most also.
one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you
pay me a visit, I want you to recite."
have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the
enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura
remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to
share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter
wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver
Twist. When I said aloud, "It
is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done . . ."
tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.
that first day, I ran down the hill and into the road (few cars ever came along
it) and had the good sense to stop running before I reached the Store.
was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson's
grandchild or Bailey's
sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson.
logic never asks to be proved (all conclusions are absolute). I didn't
question why Mrs. Flowers had singled me out for attention, nor did it occur to
me that Momma might have asked her to give me a little talking to. All I cared
about was that she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from
her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me.
on Content, Structure, and Style
What is Angelou's
main purpose in this narrative? What does she want to show about Sister Flowers'
How does Angelou use sensory details and imagery in paragraphs 2-4
to introduce Mrs. Flowers' character?
does Angelou emphasize the embarrassment she felt when Momma talked to Mrs.
Flowers? What do these conversations reveal about Angelou's
attitude toward her grandmother at this time?
an adult, what does Angelou suspect about her grandmother's
relationship to Mrs. Flowers that she didn't
see as a child?
Why was Angelou impressed by Mrs. Flowers? To what kinds of women is she
compared? Why is Angelou glad she had never seen Mrs. Flowers spoken to by white
What sort of young girl was Angelou before she became friends with Mrs.
Flowers? Cite some evidence from the essay that supports your view of her
How does the description of Mrs. Flowers'
house and possessions help communicate Angelou's
childhood reverence for this woman? Why were the cookies and lemonade so
Why does Angelou choose to use dialogue in paragraphs 37-41
instead of just describing the scene?
Does Angelou use enough vivid details to make her narrative seem
believable and her characters realistic? Cite two or three examples of
descriptive language that you think are particularly effective.
does Angelou include paragraphs 42 and 43at the end of her essay? Would the
extent of Mrs. Flowers'
impact on the author be as complete without them?