I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS - MAYA ANGELOU
The children's paternal grandmother is Annie Henderson, from Stamps Arkansas, a formidable woman who has been married three times
1. to Mr Johnson, the children's grandfather (owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store in Stamps, Arkansas)
2. to Mr Henderson (of whom Maya knows nothing at all)
3. to Mr Murphy "a stocky dark man who wore a snap brim hat like George raft".
The last of the three men is still alive during the course of the novel and appears briefly one Saturday night in Stamps. Bailey says Uncle Willie stays home when he visits to stop him from "stealing us blind."
Annie Henderson is a formidable woman who is a figure of great importance in the Negro community and respected by all who know her . She is wealthy; owning land and property and has built up a successful business. She is also a pillar of the local church and takes her religious faith totally seriously, attempting to live to the letter the Christian way of life set out in the Bible, which is her guidebook. She takes on the care of her son, Bailey's children when his marriage to Vivian Baxter breaks down (Baxter is Vivian's maiden name), bringing them to live with her in Stamps and caring for them both on and off for ten years. Her notion of child care is rather Spartan and very much based on Biblical principles ("Spare the rod and spoil the child") there is little softness in her and neither Maya nor Bailey are coddled in any way. They are cared for, fed, clothed, educated both literally and spiritually and expected to do their share of chores around the house and the store. The love which their grandmother feels for them is never expressed verbally, because that is not the way Annie conducts herself with anyone. The care of her grandchildren is her Christian duty and she undertakes it willingly because as a Christian she is under an obligation to love and care for her family and fellow men - after God. God comes first in everything Annie Henderson does. In fact she is too formidable a woman to be anything other than respected and admired by most people. The children love her character - her unchanging predictability and her dependability. They also fear her censure and keep out of the way of her displeasure, when they can. Maya especially feels admiration for Annie, and she is her first role model (Maya is only three when she first goes to Stamps and Annie is the only parent both children know for the next four years) As she grows up, Maya comes to admire her grandmother's iron spirit and integrity even more, after incidents like the "powhitetrash" girls and the infamous Dentist Lincoln show her how steadfast Annie is in the struggle to maintain her human dignity in the face of extreme prejudice. It is also true that the negroes who patronise the store regard Annie Henderson as a strong representative of their race.
Annie is not educated like Mrs Flowers, but she is intelligent. It is easy to feel impatience with some of the things she does and says, especially the more extreme manifestations of her literal interpretation of the Bible (the thrashing she gives Maya, for example when the girl says "by the way") but it must be remembered that the reality of life in the American South for all negroes was a constant struggle against prejudice and injustice of the most hideous kind and religious faith did offer a real promise of status and hope to people whose lives were literally worthless in the eyes of the majority of the white population. Annie and thousands of black men and women like her truly believed that adherence to the teachings of the Bible was a guarantee of eternal life in a better place. It followed quite naturally that turning away from those teachings doomed the sinner to eternal damnation, so Annie believed that the "right" way should, if necessary, be beaten into children. Given that she had no formal education, and therefore no comparative religious or philosophical training it is not at all surprising that Annie did what she felt she must do out of a firm belief in God. - it was all she knew and all that stood between her and the rest of her people, and hopeless resignation and despair.
Her age and long experience of the harshness of Negro life also means that she knows how to "play the game" with "whitefolks", adopting a respectful non threatening attitude towards them which prevents confrontation and abuse. Here also her faith sustains her. Note how, when the "powhitetrash" girls taunt her, she hums a hymn all the time and "retreats" into a trance like state so that there is no opportunity for the children to move from insult to violence. In the demeaning interview with Dentist Lincoln, she does not lose her composure, remaining respectful even when he reveals the depth of his dislike of her race.
Her careful attitude is apparent when Bailey asks her to explain the reason why white people despise the Negro. Even in the privacy of her own home she will not speak openly about prejudice, merely commending the soul of the dead man to God. As Maya says in Ch. 25 "Her African bush secretiveness and suspiciousness had been compounded by slavery and confirmed by centuries of promises made and promises broken."
Her character is an intriguing blend of power, humour, intelligence, determination , secrecy and compassion. She is a rock to many of the negroes in Stamps, people naturally turn to her for help and display a deep trust in her judgement. Her advice to the bereaved Mr Taylor not only calms him and gives him a purpose in life, but also serves to reassure the children who are badly scared by his account of the vision of his dead wife. It also displays her own deep rooted common sense, as she interprets the ghostly message in such a way as to be of service to the local Sunday school. There is also a deep fatalism in her character and it is obvious that she has few illusions about life.
Annie's crippled son, Bailey Senior's brother and the children's uncle. Willie lives with his mother in the store and will probably never leave Stamps. He is crippled as the result of an accident as a baby, having been dropped by the baby sitter. He is something of a dandy, despite his physical handicaps and remains rather a shadowy figure throughout most of the book. In a community where success as a male was measured often in terms of physical strength and the ability to work long hours at hard manual labour, Uncle Willie is definitely a weakling. Maya describes him as a natural "whipping boy" and there is a suggestion that Willie underwent more than a little suffering because he was not able to be as manly as other men in the town. Only once do we see him make a protest at his lot; when he pretends to be able bodied in front of the couple from Little Rock. Like Annie, though, he prefers not to be open about his emotions and although he knows Maya has seen and understood, it is never mentioned between them. He is very different from his brother, the children's father, Bailey Snr. being quietly spoken and retiring, where Bailey is loud and flamboyant. he can, though, be authoritative and deals out quite spectacular penalties for wrongdoing, being quite capable of beating the children when they misbehave badly enough, as he does after the Sister Monroe incident, or when he bends them towards the stove if they do their lessons too slowly. Probably, like his mother, he has learned to conceal his feelings very skilfully over the years, as many black men and women thought it wise to do.
Momma's other son and the children's father, Bailey Senior is quite different from Willie, being loud and very flamboyant. he is fond of making an impact and is very conscious of his own status; in Stamps as the local boy who made good and in South California as a worthy member of the local community ("A Mason, an Elk and the first Black Deacon of the Lutheran Church.") He is not a particularly caring parent, being happy to turn over the upbringing of his two children to his mother when his marriage to Vivian breaks up, but it should also be noted that in 1931 child care would not be regarded as a "man's job", so his actions are understandable. He also holds down jobs which are much more respectable than those held by Vivian and her family, working in the kitchens of a navy base when Maya spends her disastrous holiday with him in Southern California. We are not told why the "disastrous marriage" broke up, but it may have been to do with the circles Vivian moved in. Daddy Bailey does not seem to frequent the seamier parts of the Negro underworld, but to prefer, like Annie, to make his mark in "respectable" society. He does, of course, have a series of women in his life. We are not told who preceded Dolores, but we do know that he married someone else and he treats Dolores very badly, keeping at least one mistress in Mexico and visiting her regularly. His morals are, then little better than Vivian's. At least she is open and honest about who and what she is, unlike the hypocrisy of Bailey Snr who goes to preposterous lengths to hide his domestic difficulties from the people in the neighbourhood. On the whole, Maya does not paint a particularly appealing picture of her father, preferring to accord Daddy Clidell the honour of being a "real" father to her. Certainly Bailey seems to avoid the responsibility of parenthood until the children are more or less grown up and even then he does not make a serious effort to get to know either Maya or Bailey Jr. except on the most superficial terms.
Unravelling the character of Vivian Baxter is difficult because what the book presents us with is an obviously biased picture of an alluring and complex woman, described by a daughter who loves her mother "warts and all".
Vivian Baxter is one of a large family of "mean" people. Her parents Maya's maternal grandparents are influential members of what is very probably the Negro criminal underworld of St Louis. Grandmother Baxter is very light skinned with no negroid features at all and Grandfather Baxter is West Indian black; their children are fighters and all are larger than life figures to Maya and her brother. Although the family obviously enjoys the glamorous side of city life , they are also able to hold down regular jobs, so there seems to be a constant double standard in operation; on the one hand, gambling joints and night clubs, and on the other, city politics and wheeling and dealing influence.
The children are mixing right from the start in St Louis and later in Oakland and then San Francisco with numbers runners, gamblers, lottery takers and whisky salesmen. Grandmother Baxter has "pull" with the police department and backed by her six "mean" children, exercises real power over many people. Vivian is a trained nurse, like her mother, but prefers the glamorous side of life so seems to make a living gambling, or running poker games or singing in bars or clubs. There is a suggestion (by Bailey Snr.'s girlfriend Dolores) that Vivian is a "whore", although there is no evidence, naturally enough, to prove the allegation. She certainly keeps irregular hours but the children are enchanted by her charm. She seems to be the kind of woman who can charm everyone and physically she is devastatingly beautiful, with white skin and film star looks. Perhaps it is her whiteness which makes her so attractive; certainly Grandmother Baxter's white skin is a factor which makes her powerful.
All the Baxter children are encouraged by their parents to be fighters and to take what they want from life. They are a close knit, protective family which is very similar in some ways to Stamps, with its closeness and solidarity. Morally, though, the two are worlds apart. Bailey and Maya experience both extremes of a moral continuum - Stamps with its church based respectability and St Louis with its gin joints and gambling parlours could not be more different.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Vivian's way of life is irregular. She makes no pretence about where she goes or how she makes a living, taking the children to see the places she frequents and having them meet her friends and dance in bars. Bailey is totally besotted by her, and Maya regards her with awe and reverence, the only parent they have to compare with Vivian is Momma, and there could not be a greater physical difference between the two. There is, though, a similarity in the determination shown by both women to make their own lives as successful as their circumstances will permit. When Momma and Vivian are together it is obvious that they respect one another, perhaps because each recognises the other's strength.
Vivian's generous outgoing personality makes her appear to be a generous woman, but in fact there is evidence that she is capable of great cruelty. Her relationship with Mr Freeman is not stable and she has at least one broken marriage. She can be aggressive and vicious, and has done serious physical harm to at least one of her business partners. It is more than likely that she and her family are instrumental in what befalls Freeman after he assaults Maya, if Grandmother Baxter's reaction to the news is anything to go by. She is certainly extremely selfish, the children fit into her lifestyle, not she into theirs and she goes away regularly on business and keeps erratic hours when she is home. If Bailey had not seen the dead man and Momma had not been so worried about him and his future in Stamps, it is probable that the children would have remained in Stamps much longer than they did, since it is Momma who arranges their return to Oakland, not Vivian.
On the other hand, Vivian is as conscientious a parent as she is able to be when her children are part of her life. She does her best to support Maya when she decides to try to become a street car conductor and ferries her in the car to all the erratic shifts the girl works. She answers questions put to her about any subject with frankness and honesty, treating the children as adults whenever possible. When Bailey leaves home she does her best to make the parting as honourable for him as she can, knowing his pride and recognising his need for independence. Maya's disastrous pregnancy is accepted and supported with no recriminations and with much practical help. Unfortunately the children are given very little in the way of social or moral education either by Vivian or by Momma. Neither woman is conventional and each passes on a peculiar code of moral conduct to the children, resulting in damage to both of them in various ways. Whatever faults Vivian Baxter has, and they are many, there is no doubt about the loyalty and love which she inspires in her children.
Maya adores her older (by one year) brother, Bailey and he is her hero, mentor and friend throughout the many difficulties of their childhood. He is small, taking after the Baxter side of the family in his slight build, light skin and delicate features. He is also formidably intelligent, although he tends to be rather precocious and becomes sarcastic when the children return to Stamps after Maya's rape. There is an element of his father's superiority, too, as we see when he holds court among the less intelligent students in the school yard. He enjoys being the centre of attention and showing off his superior knowledge. Maya also admires his sensitivity and his ability to feel things very deeply, although he takes care not o let this show too much to others lest he be thought of as unmanly. It is Maya who can be known as "tender hearted" because she is a girl. Bailey's own tender heart has to be well concealed from the world. This means at times that he seems confident and arrogant when really he is insecure and afraid.
He is also, like his "Mother Dear", sometimes cruel, making fun of those people in Stamps whom he regards as inferior and putting down people he thinks are "uppity". it is Bailey, for example who devises the punishment for Mrs Cullinan when she calls Maya "out of her name" . Instinctively Bailey knows what will upset her most and has no hesitation in suggesting that the precious items of glass and china get broken "by accident". He incites the hysteria at Sister Monroe's visitation and steals the pickles and all the food for Joyce, to pay for the sex sessions in the captain Scarlet hideaway. Sometimes we see him, through Maya's eyes as the sensitive, insecure boy he is; on the way back to Stamps after St Louis, he "cried his heart out", for example; but normally this side of his character is well hidden and what shows is his "silver tongue, just like his daddy". He can be stubborn and unpleasant when he feels most vulnerable. When he is thrashed for staying out late he does not admit except to Maya that he had deliberately stayed at the cinema to see the film again because he missed Vivian and Kay Francis reminded him of his mother, but takes the beating without explanation. Maya seems to be the person who is closest to understanding the complexity of his nature. In a world where men were supposed to be poker faced and hard, Bailey cannot afford to be anything else, but there is a softness and a sensitivity in him which he allows Maya to see and experience, on his terms.
By the end of the book, the endearing young boy is turning into a flashy and not very likeable young tearaway, imitating the men who hang around Vivian. His relationship with his mother is delicately described by the author and there is a suggestion that his feelings for her are very complex and rather destructive. Both mother and son seem to realise that they cannot continue to live together and Bailey leaves home at a very early age. His intelligence and potential would probably have been better used if he had not been a product of that particular place and time and could have continued his education, but unfortunately he, like many other bright young black men, were victims of the whole sad mess that was segregated America.
Maya's real name is Marguerite Johnson ( Angelou is her married name ) and the name Maya is a corruption of Bailey's nickname for his little sister "My-a sister". Like her brother Bailey she is intelligent and intuitive, described by the people in Stamps as "tender-hearted" which means soft hearted and sensitive. Although the book is an account of her life, it is mainly the people around her, her family and her friends who are given most of the depth of character. In writing about herself, the author recounts anecdotes through which the reader deduces facts about her character, rather than relating the facts openly. We know many things which happened to Maya, not least of which is the traumatic experience of repeated sexual abuse, but there is not much in the way of self analysis, except for her feelings about her blackness (which she dignifies throughout the book with a capital B) and her physical build, which she seems to dislike intensely.
The events which happen to her in the first sixteen years of her life ( the period spanned in this , the first of several volumes of autobiography) read at times like fiction., it is difficult to imagine how she survived some of the more lurid incidents without severe psychological damage. Cleverly, she refrains from telling us openly how she felt, confining the narrative to stark factual accounts of what happened, leaving out none of the details and using very simple, almost childish language. We are left to experience the horror of abuse for ourselves and it is more effective precisely because the author does NOT tell us how dreadful it was, but just tells us the dreadful facts of forced intercourse. Similarly she is very skilled at the use of humour, being able to recreate the ludicrous scene in church with Sister Monroe so clearly that we are able almost to be there ourselves, so we feel what the children felt without having to be told.
The emotional area which she does comment on is that of the injustice of segregation and her anger about it. Again, very cleverly, she allows us (white) readers to see through her childish eyes what it was like to be black in a white world, to our horror and disgust. When Lincoln says he would rather put his hand in a dog's mouth than a nigger's, we, like Maya, are incensed and stunned at the way such blatant cruelty and injustice could be part of normal day to day life. We can also see how Momma and Uncle Willie and all the other black people in the South kept their mouths shut for so long, when she tells us in such a matter of fact way about Bailey's experience with the dead body in the pond. At these times, the natural anger which she expresses is equally natural to the reader.
The most impressive thing about this book is the honesty of the author and her courage in telling the reader exactly what it was like to live the life she did. The varied and often disturbing incidents which happened to her as a child and young woman obviously shaped her into the person she is today. This is the same for everyone, but not everyone has had such a bizarre range of experiences. What remains constant throughout the book is her generosity of heart and the great affection she has for the members of her eccentric family, together with an acute eye for the ridiculous and an ability, no doubt gained from the "life lessons" of Mrs Flowers in Stamps, to use language with clarity and accuracy to draw the reader into the web of her narrative.
Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope