What individuals serve as positive role models for Maya in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"?

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thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Maya Angelou gives an account of her formative years in I Know Why The Caged Birds Sing. It is through this account that we establish how the women in her life mold her into the person she becomes. The first person to have a profound influence on Angelou is her maternal grandmother, Momma Henderson. Momma is a strict disciplinarian who instills the values of survival, hard work, respect, education, and salvation on Angelou. She is entrepreneurial; owns the only black store in Stamp, manages to sustain it during the depression, owns the land, and even lends money to some well-known white individuals.

Mrs. Flowers is another of Maya’s role models. She is the one who encourages Maya to speak again after her five-year-long muteness due to the traumatic rape experience. She supports and helps nurture Maya’s enthusiasm for literature and knowledge.

At George Washington High, Maya encounters Mrs. Kurwin, who took particular interest in developing her intellectual capacity. She helps spark Maya’s creativity. Maya is grateful, as seen when she travels back to San Francisco, years later, to simply thank her for her positive guidance.

Maya’s mother, Vivian, also has considerable influence on Maya’s character. She is free-spirited, honest, persistent, loving, and supportive. She teaches Maya to be and do anything that she is determined to. For instance, Maya is determined in becoming a toll collector, despite the odds.

Even though they have diverse personalities and principles, these women’s experiences and advice make Maya who she is; strong, intelligent, persistent, and well-rounded.

sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

First of all, her mother, Vivian Bailey, is a positive role model.  Vivian is a strong, independent woman and a wonderful mother.  She shows her children how to stand up for what is right, confront people when needed, and show compassion always.  She also listens to her children and gives them support, allowing them to thrive.

Maya's grandmother is similar, although more strict than Vivian.  She shows the children discipline and keeps a tight rein on them.  She also demonstrates the need to stand up for oneself and to confront injustice when she sees it. 

Mrs. Flowers gives Maya a different view of African-American woman than her family.  She is genteel, well-educated, and refined.  She allows Maya to see a different way of life, and helps to introduce Maya to the joys of literature.

Maya's teacher, Miss Kirwin, also demonstrates compassion and teaches the importance of it.  She is kind and open with her students, and encourages them to express themselves.

Not to leave out the men, Daddy Clidell allows Maya to see what strength and social success looks like.  He keeps his family strong both emotionally and financially.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Mrs. Flowers is one of Maya's greatest role models. Maya refers to Mrs. Flowers as "one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known" and writes that Mrs. Flowers "has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be." By being genteel and refined, Mrs. Flowers makes Maya proud to be black. Mrs. Flowers is also clever enough to restore Maya's speech after her episode with mutism by telling her that communication is what separates humans from animals. Mrs. Flowers provides Maya with books, which she instructs Maya to read aloud to regain her speech. She also provides Maya with invaluable lessons about life, such as to be intolerant of ignorance but tolerant of illiteracy.

Miss Kirwin, Maya's teacher at George Washington High School, is another role model. She is a brilliant teacher who knows how to inspire her students with her love of knowledge. Miss Kirwin treats her students with respect and motivates them to read widely and gain knowledge. She does not treat Maya any differently as a black student, and she respects students for their scholarship, rather than based on the color of their skin.

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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