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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Tony Lindsay Presents... A Tribute to Maya Angelou

The Black Arts Movement combined arts and politics, and power was identified in non-traditional sources by talented writers of the era. In Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, power is held in the hands of a very memorable woman.

The most powerful woman in the work is Angelou’s paternal grandmother: affectionately known as Momma, neighborly known as Sister Henderson, and formally known as Mrs. Henderson. This grandmother held enough power to save a racist dentist’s building and to instill enough mother wit within her children and grandchildren to last a life time. Angelou writes,
People spoke of Momma as a good-looking woman and some, who remembered her youth, said she used to be right pretty. I saw only her power and strength. She was taller than any woman in my personal world, and her hands were so large they could span my head from ear to ear. Her voice was soft only because she chose to keep it so. In church, when she was called upon to sing, she seemed to pull out plugs from behind her jaws and the huge, almost rough sound would pour over the listeners and throb in the air. (46-47)

Beyond her powerful physical presence, Momma’s personality drew respect and admiration, but Maya recalls, “Knowing Momma, I knew that I never knew Momma. Her African-bush secretiveness and suspiciousness had been compounded by slavery and confirmed by centuries of promises made and promises broken.” As her grandchild, Maya was protected from much of what her grandmother knew and experienced. Even when they shared experiences her grandmother would shield her.

When Maya was refused services by a dentist, who owed Momma a favor, her imagined recollection of the event differed greatly from what Momma said occurred;
Dentist Lincoln got right uppity. Said he’d rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. And I reminded him of the favor, he brushed it off like a piece of lint. Well, I sent Sister (Maya) downstairs and went inside. I hadn’t never been in his office before, but I found the door to where he takes out teeth, and him and the nurse was in there thick as thieves. I just stood there till he caught sight of me . . . He said, ‘Annie, I done tole you, I ain’t gonna mess around in no niggah’s mouth.’ I said, ‘Somebody got to do it then,’ and he said, ‘Take her to Texarkana to the colored dentist’ and that’s when I said, ‘If you paid me my money I could afford to take her,’ He said, ‘It’s all been paid.’ I tole him everthing but the interest had been paid. He said, ‘Twasn’t no interst.’ I said, ‘Tis now. I’ll take ten dollars as payment in full.’ . . . (93)

Mrs. Henderson was not to be denied respect from any person, and if disrespect was attempted, she was able manipulate and balance the injustice to her favor.

It was the writers of the Black Arts Movement who offered readers characters like Sister Henderson who added power to the movement. Maya Angelou’s literary portrait of her grandmother is that of a powerful black woman, which was what the movement required. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an exemplary autobiography of the Black Arts Movement.             

Tony Lindsay is an award-winning author and adjunct professor at Chicago State University. His book ONE DEAD DOCTOR was chosen by Conversations Book Club as one of its Top 100 Books of 2012. Lindsay was named Conversations Author of the Year 2012-2013.  His new book EMOTIONAL DRIPPINGS is available now on He can be reached at or on Facebook at

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