Maya Angelou tells the story of her growing-up years in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and several key female figures help shape her life. Two teachers have a dramatic impact on the young Marguerite (Maya), and her stepmother Doris is a negative influence on her as a teenager. The two most influential women in her life, however, are her grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, and her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson. Together, these women shape Maya’s character and personality.
When the Johnsons divorce, they ship Maya and her brother, ages three and four, from California to Arkansas like cargo, their tickets pinned to their clothing. Grandmother Henderson (Momma) gave both children direction, set an example of hard work and discipline, and taught them how to sing through troubles in life. She taught by example the principles of thrift and economy, business and morality.
Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found.
Momma was grounded and reliable, the perfect landing place for children who had nowhere else to go.
The children think their parents are dead until they receive Christmas gifts from them four years later. Vivian sent her daughter “a tea set—a teapot, four cups and saucers and tiny spoons—and a doll with blue eyes and rosy cheeks and yellow hair painted on her head," something Momma would never have given her.
When Maya finally meets her mother she is dumbstruck.
To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow…. My mother’s beauty literally assailed me.
In contrast to Momma’s sturdy steadfastness, Vivian is color and light and beauty. In short, she is many things Momma is not, like the other side of a coin. Maya says about her:
She was like a pretty kite that floated just above my head.
Vivian encourages May to dance, among other things, and is a constant source of wonder and amazement to her daughter. She plans parties in the middle of the night and curses as easily as she laughs; her children are captivated by her. Vivian is not just frivolous and fun, however.
Mother was competent in providing for us. Even if that meant getting someone else to furnish the provisions…. She supported us efficiently with humor and imagination.
Vivian is light-skinned, educated, and from a good family; she is also a nurse, though she does not practice. When Maya gets a job as a conductor, something she never would have been bold enough to do while living with Momma, Vivian drives her to work at all hours of the day and night. When Maya gets pregnant, Vivian is there to teach her daughter how to care for her baby boy. She is “beautiful and wild,” but “with all her jollity, Vivian Baxter had no mercy.” When she discovers her boyfriend raped Maya, for example, he is immediately gone.
Momma is full of "solemn determination," and Maya learns that from her; Vivian is full of color and light, something Maya needs in order to give balance to her life.
It would be easy to say that Vivian is a bad mother, but in reality she teaches Maya many things about being confident, fun, and practical in the modern world--tools she can add to those Momma gave her.
She was Vivian Baxter Jackson. Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.
May was influenced in positive ways by her mother because she had been well grounded by her grandmother.