I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Characters
The main characters in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings include Marguerite Johnson, Bailey Johnson, and Mrs. Annie Henderson, called Momma.
- Marguerite Johnson, the author’s younger self and the subject of the memoir, is a sensitive, intelligent young woman who loves literature. She gains confidence over the course of the narrative, becoming a streetcar conductor and ultimately a mother.
- Bailey Johnson is Marguerite's charming, outgoing older brother, who strives to protect his sister.
- Mrs. Annie Henderson is Marguerite’s stern but kind grandmother, whom she calls Momma. Marguerite and Bailey live with her in Stamps, Arkansas, where Momma runs a general store.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1295
Maya Angelou focuses the entire narrative through the eyes of her childhood self, Marguerite. Only rarely does she substitute the perspective of the adult author for that of the young narrator. Even when very young, however, Marguerite is perceptive and insightful. Her sensitivity makes her painfully aware of injustice, such as the racist violence which is endemic in Stamps, where the Ku Klux Klan might at any point decide to attack her innocent uncle. However, this sensitivity also makes her blame herself for failing to tell her family about Mr. Freeman’s sexual predation, turning much of her anger inward in guilt. As the book progresses, the therapeutic value of Marguerite’s reading and writing becomes clear, making this book a künstlerroman as well as a bildungsroman—the story of how Marguerite grew up, but also of how she became the author, turning her pain into literature.
Bailey is Marguerite’s older brother and a heroic figure in her life. He is handsome and charismatic, mischievous as a child, and always fiercely protective of his sister. After Marguerite is raped and becomes morose and withdrawn, the contrast between them is even more obvious. Bailey takes on the role of local celebrity with enthusiasm, answering the naïve questions of Stamps’s inhabitants with magnificently intricate lies and shielding Marguerite from having to speak in the process. However, his emotional reaction to seeing a film star who looks like his mother, and the long-lasting effect of this experience, show that he is capable of deep feeling.
Mrs. Annie Henderson (Momma)
Momma is Marguerite’s grandmother, a strong woman with a powerful religious faith who has worked hard to become a property owner and a pillar of the community. Momma is a stern disciplinarian, always warning Marguerite and Bailey against becoming “uppity,” but she is also kindhearted and does more than anyone else to give the children a stable childhood and a sense of purpose.
Uncle Willie is Momma’s son, who lives with her. His life is marred by disability but is otherwise comfortable, and his fine clothes and polished shoes are the subject of envy in Stamps. After Momma, he is the principal authority figure in Marguerite and Bailey’s life.
The Former Sheriff
The former sheriff is a minor character who is unnamed and only appears in chapter 3. Nonetheless, he is a memorable figure who typifies the mixture of condescension and casual violence in the attitude of the white community in Stamps toward its Black neighbors. The former sheriff clearly thinks he is doing Momma a favor by telling her that Uncle Willie may be lynched for a crime of which he is completely innocent, and it does not occur to him to oppose or try to prevent the lynching.
Mr. McElroy is a neighbor of Momma’s. He is remarkable principally for being a Black man who wears a suit and owns his own house and land. Marguerite eventually decides that, apart from these attributes, he is an uninteresting person.
The Reverend Howard Thomas
The Reverend Thomas is the pompous, gluttonous presiding elder of Momma’s church, who visits Stamps every three months on church business. He is detested by Marguerite and Bailey, who are delighted to see him lose his false teeth when set upon by Sister Monroe during a service.
Bailey Johnson Senior
Marguerite and Bailey’s father is a distant figure, a stranger to his children. He seems an impressive figure with his wool suit, shiny car, and educated accent, but Marguerite ultimately finds him vain and empty, as well as grossly irresponsible.
Marguerite and Bailey’s mother, like her husband, is a stranger to her children. She is very beautiful and charismatic, and resembles the film star Kay Francis. Marguerite thinks her unsuited to motherhood, perhaps because she is too beautiful to be a mother. Though she is kind to the children, she does not get to know them or form a meaningful connection with them until they come to live with her in California.
Grandmother Baxter, Marguerite’s maternal grandmother, is as formidable in her way as Momma. She is a highly respectable woman, with political connections and real power in the city of St. Louis, partly due to the violence and ruthlessness of her “mean” sons.
Uncle Tommy is Marguerite’s favorite among Grandmother Baxter’s sons and the least obviously “mean,” despite his gruff demeanor. He is a natural comedian and enjoys playing with the children.
Mr. Freeman is the boyfriend of Marguerite’s mother. Initially, he seems a harmless if rather pathetic figure, grateful to have secured such a beautiful and charismatic partner and aware that he does not deserve her. However, Mr. Freeman soon starts sexually abusing the eight-year-old Marguerite and threatening that he will kill her brother if she tells anyone. Finally, he rapes her. Although he escapes legal punishment, a more violent retribution quickly overtakes him, and his body is found, apparently kicked to death.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers
Mrs. Flowers is a gracious, cultivated woman who is a role model for Marguerite and encourages her to read and speak.
Mrs. Viola Cullinan
Mrs. Cullinan is a white woman from Virginia who employs Marguerite to work in the kitchen of her immaculate house. She is ugly and rude, calling her servants by short names of her own devising because she refuses to learn or pronounce their actual names.
Louise Hendricks is a beautiful girl of around Marguerite’s age who becomes her only close friend in Stamps.
Tommy Valdon is a classmate of Marguerite’s who sends her a valentine. Although she does not talk to him, largely because of her traumatic experiences with Mr. Freeman in St. Louis, Tommy remains respectful and seems to be sincere in his affection.
Joyce comes to Stamps for a few months to live with her aunt, has a brief sexual relationship with Bailey, then disappears. Marguerite discovers that she has run away with a railroad porter. Joyce is four years older than Bailey and much more experienced.
George Taylor is an inhabitant of Stamps whose wife has recently died at the time he enters the story. He is a lonely, tragic figure who believes that his wife speaks to him from beyond the grave, lamenting the fact that they had no children together.
Henry Reed is the valedictorian of Marguerite’s eighth grade class, one of the few students who is on a similar level to her academically. Marguerite admires him because he is able to succeed in the adult world and do well at school while simultaneously remaining popular with the other children.
Dr. Lincoln is the only dentist in Stamps. He owes Momma a favor, as she once loaned him money, but he is inflexible in his policy of only treating white patients. When Momma brings Marguerite to him with severe toothache, Dr. Lincoln dismisses them with arrogant contempt.
Miss Kirwin is the only teacher who makes a strong impression on Marguerite at George Washington High School in San Francisco. She is devoted to passing on her knowledge and treats all her pupils with great courtesy and scrupulous fairness.
Daddy Clidell is a wealthy businessman who becomes the boyfriend of Marguerite’s mother in San Francisco. He has little education but is not ashamed of this, nor is he arrogant about his success. He is kind to Marguerite and is often mistaken for her father.
Dolores is the young girlfriend of Marguerite’s father. She is jealous and pretentious, soon taking a dislike to Marguerite and eventually attacking and wounding her.