by Max Brantley
It is in this atmosphere that Johnson first encountered Southern bigotry and racial disharmony among white customers who called her grandmother by her first name and poked fun at her crippled uncle. She also saw how African Americans defined beauty and self-worth based upon what the white people expressed and displayed during their daily encounters. Later, Angelou suggested that her faith and Christian beliefs—and her strong sense of fair play and inner beauty—stemmed from these experiences.
In 1935, the children were returned to the care of their mother in Chicago, Illinois, but were sent back to Stamps after it was discovered that Johnson had been sexually molested by her mother’s boyfriend, who was later found dead. The small girl felt guilty and believed that her voice had caused the death of the rapist, so she became mute and remained so for four years. It was at this time that she turned inward and began to comfort herself with the written word. A teacher, Beulah Flowers, befriended her and introduced her to classical writings by such authors as Langston Hughes (whom she was to meet eventually in New York), Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, Arna Bontemps, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. It was after reading about their lives and listening to Flowers’s discussion of them and other matters that Johnson began to speak again.
Her life in Stamps helped to mold her both in a spiritual and activist manner, as is evident in her rebelling against the black principal of her elementary school when she refused to heed his warning not to sing the “Negro National Anthem” (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) rather than “God Bless America” during the graduation assembly when the white superintendent of public schools and other white officials were present. She was appalled that the superintendent spoke to the class about their learning trades so that they might remain in servitude to the majority race. She was insulted at the inference that those were the only kinds of job opportunities available for educated African Americans. Soon afterward, the two children once again moved to be with their mother, Vivian—this time to San Francisco, California.