Female Role Models in Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"
Maya Angelou tells the story of the first seventeen years of her life in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. During these formative years of life, Angelou was fortunate to have several different female role models to teach her important lesson. These lessons given by Momma Henderson, Vivian Baxter, and Mrs. Flowers helped shape her into a strong, educated woman able to forge her own path in life.
Momma Henderson, Maya’s paternal grandmother, was the first major woman in her life. A strict, religious woman, Momma Henderson owned the only black store in Stamps, Arkansas. She was a determined woman who kept her store going through the depression. She was a smart woman who owned land rented out to the ‘powhitetrash,’ and lent money to prominent white people, such as the dentist, leaving them indebted to her. Her parenting philosophy was to raise educated children who feared God and remained alive in the dangerous South. Angelou states this philosophy in chapter seven when she says, “Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones” (47).
Momma Henderson was a positive role model who instilled the values of education, religion, and survival in Maya. Maya was always expected to do her schoolwork and to get high grades. It was unacceptable in the Henderson household to ‘just get by’ in school. Those expectations, and a fear of punishment, encouraged Maya to do well and began her love for knowledge.
Angelou says that “Thou shall not be dirty’ and ‘Thou shall not be impudent’ were two commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation” (27). Religion ruled in the Henderson household. Maya attended church with the family every Sunday, but Momma taught Maya that one must look to God every day. Momma’s religious values taught Maya how to be a good, honest, clean respectful person. Maya was always expected to address her elders with a respectful title, such as Mr. or Ms. She was punished if she did anything against the Lord. For example, when she returned from visiting with Mrs. Flowers, she said, “By the way, Bailey, Mrs. Flowers sent you some tea cookies –” (101). She was punished severely for this seemingly innocent statement. A few pages later one finds out that ‘the way’ is in deference to God and one must not use such a statement so disrespectfully.
Momma Henderson was also a role model for survival. She showed Maya how to stand up, keep her pride and keep on singing when the incident with the impudent ‘powhitetrash’ girls occurred. However, she knew when to back down in the name of safety. For example, she buried Uncle Willie in the potato and onion bin when the white vigilantes were out for the blood of a black man.
Vivian Baxter was the second major female role model in Maya’s life. Maya described her birth mother as “a hurricane in its perfect power” (59). Vivian’s fun loving, secular lifestyle was the complete opposite of Momma Henderson’s way of life. She was a self-sufficient woman doing all the things she loved in life. Vivian was trained to be a nurse, but she made her living as a card dealer. She taught Maya that joy, freedom, independence, and determination are important in life. Her actions were an example of these values. She reinforced these lessons by supporting Maya in everything she was determined to do. For example, Maya wanted to work as a toll collector on the trolleys in San Francisco. No other black person held that position. Although she was turned away many times, Maya was persistent. Her persistence was inspired by Vivian’s advice that “Can’t Do is like Don’t Care.’ Neither of them have a home” (265).
Vivian was also very open and honest with Maya. She was able to talk to Maya openly and supportively about everything, including sex. I believe that Vivian’s openness gave Maya the courage to be so open in her writing.
Mrs. Flowers was the third major female role model in Maya’s life. She was not a part of Maya’s daily existence as Momma and Vivian were. Maya state that Mrs. Flowers is “one of the few gentlewoman I have ever known and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be” (94). She was the woman that encouraged Maya to speak again when she became silent after her experience with rape. She invited Maya to her home, gave her lemonade and cookies, and read to her aloud from A Tale of Two Cities. She reinforced Maya’s growing love for literature and knowledge. Maya called these visits to Mrs. Flower’s home her ‘lessons in living,’ because during those visits she learned that she
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 must] listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations (99-100).
Most importantly, she encourages Maya to speak out and love the sound of her own voice.
These three women taught Maya Angelou the important lessons of life through example and advice. They were all strong, intelligent women who made their own paths in life. Being exposed to these women, all of whom tool slightly different path in life, shaped Maya Angelou into a very well rounded, strong, intelligent woman. With these women as role models, Maya learned to love knowledge, love God, survive, fly free, explode creatively, and to speak out and lover her own voice. It is these female role models that taught Maya the lessons that led her to understand why the caged bird sings.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam Books, 1969.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt.
Maya Angelou speaking about her childhood, which is the subject of the novel.
© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt