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Notes on Characters from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

This section contains 1,934 word
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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Major Characters

Marguerite 'Maya' Johnson: Main character of this autobiographical story (Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson). She begins as a young, self-hating black girl in the racist town of Stamps, Arkansas, and ends a self-aware, confident, mature mother at sixteen. Throughout her life, she thinks deeply about racism, religion, and other subjects that her neighbors sometimes take for granted. Raised for the first decade of her life by her father's mother in Stamps, she learns from 'Momma' how to find strength in religion and dignity in the face of racism. She then moves to St. Louis to live with her mother, from whom she learns how to have fun and be self-confident. A quiet, intelligent and ambitious girl, she feels out of place everywhere she goes. Only her brother Bailey, who understands her, makes her feel better. When she is raped by her mother's boyfriend, she stops communicating altogether, until she meets a kind woman in Stamps who shows her the power of language, which provides a happy escape for her.

Momma (Annie Henderson): Maya's grandmother, mother of Bailey Sr. and Uncle Willie, and owner of the Store. Though Maya resents Momma's super-religious beliefs and her strictness, she often loves her for them too. Sometimes she feels like Momma can do anything, and will protect Maya from anything that might try to harm her. Though Momma is subject to white bigotry just like everyone else, she manages to rise above it by maintaining her own dignity: she almost never sinks to their level. Maya has a lot of respect for this.

Bailey Johnson, Jr.: Maya's brother, one year older, and her only friend for years. He shares her intelligence and sense of humor, but unlike her, he is bold, confident, well-liked and handsome. He loves Maya and takes care of her. He buys her books to read, and defends her from insults. Even as they grow up and grow apart, he speaks to her as an equal, because he understands her intelligence. Yet the true love of his boyhood life is his mother, whose affection he craves desperately. They are so attached to each other that, by the time he is sixteen, they realize that he has to leave the house, because their bond is too strong.

Uncle Willie: Maya's uncle; Momma's son; Bailey Sr.'s brother. A generally kind, quiet and ineffectual man who helps Momma run the store. He is crippled, so he cannot work, and this sets him apart from most other men in the town, who work their bodies to the breaking point. He is proud, so he rarely pretends he is not crippled, though he hates to draw attention to it or be pitied for it. He does not seem to question his life often: when Bailey asks him why white people hate black people so much, he has no real answer. It seems that, though he confronts it every day, he hasn't ever really tried to find a reason for it. He leads a simple life and has little interest in rebelling.

Father (Bailey Johnson, Sr., 'Daddy Bailey'): Father of Maya and Bailey, and son of Momma. He was raised in Stamps, but his ambition took him to California, where he learned to speak perfect, pretentious English and attracted numerous women with his charm and good looks. Though he dresses well, is vain, and seems genteel, he has never achieved more than a place at the edge of real gentility: he worked, for example, as a doorman at a fancy hotel. When Maya goes to stay with him for a summer when she is fifteen, he lives in a trailer park with a girl not much older than Maya. He takes Maya to a party in Mexico, then disappears with his Mexican mistress. He has no interest in being kind to Maya or being her father or even getting to know her; everything everyone does amuses him, and he handles every troublesome situation perfectly, without ever getting too attached. For this reason, Maya generally thinks of him as a stranger.

Mother (Vivian Baxter, 'Mother Dear'): Bailey and Maya's mother. Beautiful, kind and funny, Mother enchants her children from the moment they meet her. She is strong, independent, honest and tough, and Maya admires these qualities her entire childhood. Still, the children's relationship with Mother is uncertain: they are sent to live with her unexpectedly, and then she just as unexpectedly sends them back to Stamps. It is only after living with Mother for several years, as teenagers, that they begin to view her as their real mother, who they can depend on, rather than a wonderful movie star-type who lets them live with her.

Minor Characters

Mr. Steward: The former sheriff and the only man in town who owns a horse, Mr. Steward thinks of himself as kind when he is actually condescending and even cruel. He seems to believe that he is a great ruler over the sad, pathetic 'Negroes.' He comes to warn Momma about the KKK, feeling he is doing her a favor, but everyone knows he lets the Klan do whatever they want.

Mr. McElroy: As an adult, Maya knows that Mr. McElroy was just a simple salesman, but as a child, she thought he was amazing. He was an independent black man who had his own house. He was quiet and mysterious. He didn't go to church, even though he lived right next door to Momma-a fervently religious woman.

Powhitetrash children: The poorest white children in town. Some of them have less money than Maya's family, and most of them are dirtier and ruder, but because they are white, they think they are superior.

Reverend Howard Thomas: The preacher for several townships, including Stamps. He checks on the various churches every few months to collect money and make sure everything is running smoothly. Bailey and Maya hate him, because whenever he comes to town, he eats their best food, makes long boring speeches, and bothers them with his irritating laugh. He takes himself very seriously, but he is a fat, ugly, greedy man. The children love to make fun of him behind his back.

Sister Monroe: An over-enthusiastic church-goer. She lives far enough away that she cannot always get to church, and when she comes she makes up for it by becoming possessed by 'the spirit'-which means attacking people, especially the preacher himself. She yells, 'Preach it!' as though she truly feels what the preacher is saying, so much that she cannot control herself. But it seems that she is more interested in causing chaos in the church than in praying.

Grandmother Baxter: Mother Dear's mother. A kind and authoritative older woman, much like Momma, Grandmother Baxter takes care of Maya and Bailey for six months before her daughter can take the children. Mrs. Baxter has political power in St. Louis, but she also is knowledgeable about the St. Louis crime scene. She is generally fearless, even among the most hardened criminals.

Mr. Freeman: Mother's boyfriend, who lives with her and Bailey and Maya. He seems to be completely in love with Mother, and spends a lot of time waiting around for her throughout the day. But then he begins to molest Maya. At first she likes the way he holds her, but when she doesn't want it anymore, he forces her, and rapes her. Though he can see she is in terrible pain afterward, he does nothing. When Maya tells her family what he has done, someone (probably Mother's brothers) kills him.

Mrs. Bertha Flowers: A genteel, beautiful black woman who speaks in perfect English. She is friendly with Momma, and likes Maya (who is awestruck by her beautiful clothes and manners.) She makes cookies and lemonade just for Maya. She gives Maya books and tells her to read them aloud so she can understand the connection between writing and speech. Maya feels that her world has been opened up, because of this one woman's kindness and interest.

Mrs. Viola Cullinan: The white woman whose kitchen Maya works in. At first Maya pities Mrs. Cullinan (she is overweight, seems rather silly, and cannot have children) but then Mrs. Cullinan decides the name 'Marguerite' is too long, and starts calling her Mary. Maya is furious and decides she will not accept this treatment. She purposely breaks a favorite dish and gets fired. Mrs. Cullinan throws a piece of the dish at Maya on the way out.

Miss Glory: Mrs. Cullinan's maid. She is nice to Maya, but Maya is made uncomfortable when she sees how meek Glory is. She allowed her mistress to rename her (her real name is Hallelujah) because Glory is shorter, and she accepts all the other racist things Mrs. Cullinan does and says. Maya is amazed that anyone could let themselves be treated that way.

Louise Kendricks: Maya's first real friend her own age. Louise teaches Maya how to be a girl-they giggle about boys, play childish games, and generally have a lot of fun together. Louise is one of the few people Maya knows she will miss when she moves back to California.

Joyce: An older girl who introduces Bailey to sex, Joyce has a developed body and a relatively mature outlook. She is not shy, and she knows how to use boys. Bailey has a crush on her, but one day she abruptly disappears from town. They find out later that she ran away with another man, and Bailey is so bitter about it he will hardly talk about her.

Mr. George Taylor: His wife died over the summer, but Mr. Taylor, who had been married for forty years, still hears her voice. He comes to the Store one stormy night and tells everyone a ghostly story: he heard his wife say she wants children. Maya is terrified, but Momma brushes the story off, and everyone is comforted by her commanding attitude.

Mr. Edward Donleavy: Mr. Donleavy is the unexpected white speaker at Maya's graduation. He casually knocks down all the hopes of the intelligent, studious young children, assuring them that while they can be great athletes, they cannot work in any academic field. He implies that no black person is smart enough to work at an intelligent job. Throughout his speech, he makes it clear that he has other, more important things to do later that evening.

Dentist Lincoln: The white dentist in Stamps. Even though he borrowed money from Momma to save his office during the Depression, he will not remove Maya's rotten teeth. He never once looks at Maya when she and her grandmother go to see him, he simply acts sorry but says rude and racist things to Momma.

Daddy Clidell: Mother Dear's husband. Maya's first real father figure. Unlike her real father, Daddy Clidell cares for Maya, takes an interest in her, and supports her, while disciplining her at the same time. She did not expect to get to know him at all, but she finds she likes him. He introduces her to all his friends, and likes that she looks like him, and supports her when she is pregnant.

Dolores Stockland: Daddy Bailey's girlfriend, who is hardly older than Maya. She is pathetic, because she loves Maya's father, but he cheats on her and doesn't respect her. She is possessive of him, and is jealous of Maya. She keeps her house obsessively clean and speaks pretentiously-Maya knows she would like to be a 'lady,' but Daddy Bailey has her living in a trailer park. Maya tries to be kind to her, but Dolores is too petty, jealous and hurt to accept her kindness.

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