Mrs. Annie Henderson, Maya's grandmother, is a major influence in Maya's life. Strong, independent, and above all loving, she raises Maya and her brother firmly and caringly, instilling in them the values of godliness and respect. Financially, she is prosperous, and she is generous to all in need whether they be black or white. Although she recognizes the prejudicial boundaries which dominate in a small town such as Stamps, she dares to stand up to discrimination, as she proves in taking a Maya to a white dentist when no one else could be found to care for the critically ill child, and shaming him when he refuses to treat a Negro.
Other characters who had a positive effect on Maya's life include Mrs. Flowers, an elderly black lady who gives Maya books to read and introduces her to formal customs such as afternoon teas, Miss Kirwin, Maya's favorite teacher, who respects her students and challenges them to excel, and Maya's mother Vivian Baxter Bailey, who works tirelessly to take Maya out of Stamps and helps her adjust to the comparative freedom of the big city.
One of the most positive influences on Maya's life is Mrs. Flowers. In fact, in Chapter 15, Angelou says of her mentor, "She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained all my life the measure of what a human being can be."
This is great praise indeed, and let's unpack the declaration to see just what is at work here. First of all, the appellation "gentlewomen" is a deliberate word choice. In Angelou's day, the name was used in society exclusively for white women. By calling Flowers a "gentlewoman," the author is arguing for a state of mind and being rather than a income bracket or skin color.
As to the last portion, the selection of the words "what a human being can be" are also instructional. For despite the prejudice and poverty of the South, Mrs. Flowers shows a strength of character and of mind that transcends the boundaries of racial divide. One can choose to be bitter and hateful, or rise above their birth situation.
Maya learns from Mrs. Flowers many lessons in living, such as being "intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy." Moreover, she gives Maya the gift of seeing how rich her own culture is, enouraging her to "listen carefully to what country people called mother wit," but also teaches her that their is value in white culture as well, not just the hatred she's experienced. It was, after all, from Mrs. Flowers that Maya first heard poetry.