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The anger when someone provokes you. The pain when someone tortures you. The desire to do justice to those who harm you. It is emotions like these that evoke the instinctual impulse to reduce our precarious sense of vulnerability when people taunt us. In the short story When I Lay My Burden Down, author Maya Angelou shows the readers that there is no good reason to respond to someone whose prime motive is to taunt you, and that with willpower one can resist the temptation to do so.
When the powhitetrash draw nearer to Momma, the main character wants to “beg her to come on inside with her” and doesn’t understand what Momma is trying to prove by staying outside and taking the powhitetrash’s blows to her face. The narrator is so angered by the white children’s torment that she “bursts like a firecracker” and “thinks about the rifle behind the door”. Powerless and unable to do anything about the way the white children treat her mom, the speaker feels defeated and as if the “world… is having doubts about continuing to revolve”. Her inherent desire to respond to the powhitetrash is what gives the powhitetrash’s words authority and causes her to “cry in rage”.
In contrast, Momma “turns into stone” and “never turns her head or unfolds her arms” in response to the powhitetrash’s mocking. At this point, it becomes clear that Momma’s silent defiance is her way of deflecting the kids’ insults and is what resulted in her winning “whatever the contest had been out front”. The society the characters live in does not allow the black folk to actively stand up against white people. If Momma had dignified the children’s mocking with a response, she would have inadvertently strengthened the powhitetrash’s words by giving them the response they wanted and in turn, helped reinforce their ill-mannered behavior that needs to change. The powhitetrash bait Momma into an unwinnable verbal dual, because it affords them the perverse gratification of acting out their contentious predilections. They are fully aware of their advantage against black folk, and Momma responding to their torment would have shown them that their behavior will maximize their odds and give them what they want.
As the main character narrates her experience and thoughts as she struggles to understand her mother’s way of dealing with segregation and injustice, the readers’ minds are opened to how resistance and willpower are the keys to overcoming difficulties in life. When one can rise above adversity, they can win against their odds just like Momma did.
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