The principal personage of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou, writing when she was in her late thirties. In the novel she assumes two personae. The voice of "Ritie" (a diminutive of Angelou's real first name, Marguerite) describes in sometimes poignant terms incidents in her childhood and adolescence. The other voice, the adult Maya's, is introspective, more objective, and less intimate. The adult voice of Maya makes general observations or editorializes, and provides epiphanies to many of the childhood incidents.

Angelou is the anima — the female part of a female personality — of the male-female, brother and sister, relationship in the novel. The other, male, part of her make-up — the animus — is represented by her brother Bailey's personality. Thus Bailey complements his sister's personality. He fails, however, to come to terms with his mother and feels ousted in an overly dominant feminine environment.

Angelou's grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson, is the matriarchal head of the family. "Her world was bordered on all sides with work, duty, religion and 'her place.'" She is a symbol of strength, an Earth Mother, a figure who is good, kind, and protecting. Angelou calls her "Momma," and in fiction she is a "Madonna" figure, one who stands for love and hope. The beauty of Angelou's biological mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, "made her powerful and her power made her unflinchingly honest." But she did not reject friendship with those in the rackets. Finding it too inconvenient to care for the children she helped spawn, she finds an excuse (a depressed Maya) to send Maya and her brother back to "Momma" in Stamps. As for Uncle Willie, Mrs. Henderson's other son, his pride and sensitivity, "a double-tiered barrier," enables him to maintain his dignity. Angelou's father, Bailey Johnson, lives in the fast lane. A "hipster" type, he shipped the kids to Mom (Mrs. Henderson) after a divorce from a few years of marriage.

Maya Johnson

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Maya Johnson is a brilliant, sensitive young black woman with keen insight into her environment and the people in it. Her observations and...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Other Characters

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Vivian Baxter Bailey
Maya's mother is a beautiful, sexy, vibrant, smart woman with more than a little common sense. She loves her...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

Characters and Social Concerns

Maya Angelou tries to show in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings what Stamps, Arkansas, in the 1930s was like for blacks. Segregation was so complete the tradition of novels about childhood: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce; 1916), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain, 1884), Black Boy (Wright, 1945), and The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger, 1951). Black women's autobiographies that also analyze the self-image of contemporary black autobiographers include Ossie Guffy's Ossie: The Autobiography of a Black Woman (1971), Pearl Bailey's The Raw Pearl (1968), and Gwendolyn Brooks's Report from Part One (1972). Other contemporary women's autobiographies include Margaret Mead's Blackberry Winter (1972), Lillian Hellman's Pentimento (1973), Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976), and Kate Millet's Flying (1974).