Ann Johnson) Maya Angelou—named Marguerite Ann Johnson at birth—writes
about her experiences growing up as a black girl in the rural South
and in the cities of St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Maya has an unusual degree of curiosity and perceptiveness. Haunted
by her displacement from her biological parents and her sense that
she is ugly, Maya often isolates herself, escaping into her reading. Angelou’s
autobiography traces the start of her development into an independent,
wise, and compassionate woman.
Bailey Johnson, Jr.
Maya’s older brother. Like Maya, he is intelligent
and mature beyond his age. Though Bailey enjoys sports and fares
well in social situations, he also shows deep compassion for his
isolated sister. Bailey senses the negative influences of racism,
but to protect himself from despair, he chooses to anesthetize himself and
subdue his soul until the negative moment passes.
(Momma) Maya and Bailey’s paternal grandmother.
Momma raises them for most of their childhood. She owns the only
store in the black section of Stamps, Arkansas, and it serves as
the central gathering place for the black community. She raises
the children according to stern Christian values and strict rules.
Though she never reacts with emotion, both children feel her love
in-depth analysis of Annie Henderson.
and Maya’s mother. Although she has a nursing degree, she earns
most of her money working in gambling parlors or by gambling herself.
Though Vivian and Momma have very different values, they are both
strong, supportive women. A somewhat inattentive mother, Vivian
nevertheless treats her children with love and respect.
in-depth analysis of Vivian Baxter.
Big Bailey Johnson
Maya and Bailey’s father. Despite his lively personality,
he is handsome, vain, and selfish. He stands out among the other
rural blacks because of his proper English and his flashy possessions.
Maya implies that Big Bailey’s pretensions result from his disenfranchisement
as a black man in the United
States. Big Bailey does not respect, care for, or connect with Maya.
in-depth analysis of Big Bailey Johnson.
son, who is in his thirties. Injured in a childhood accident, Uncle
Willie lives his entire life with Momma. He suffers insults and jokes
because of his disability. Like Momma, he is a devout Christian,
and he acts as the children’s disciplinarian and protector.
second husband, whom she marries after her children join her in
California. Although Maya initially tries to dismiss him, Daddy
Clidell becomes the only real “father” Maya knows. He combines the virtues
of strength and tenderness and enjoys thinking of himself as Maya’s
father. He introduces her to his con-men friends and teaches her
how to play poker. A successful businessman despite his lack of
education, he remains modest and confident.
live-in boyfriend in St. Louis. When Maya and Bailey move to St.
Louis, Mr. Freeman sexually molests and rapes Maya, taking advantage
of her need for physical affection and her innocent, self-conscious nature.
In retrospect, Maya feels partly responsible for Mr. Freeman’s fate,
and her guilt over his murder haunts her throughout her childhood.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers
A black aristocrat living in Stamps, Arkansas. One
of Maya’s idols, she becomes the first person to prod Maya out of
her silence after Maya’s rape, taking an interest in Maya and making
her feel special. Maya respects Mrs. Flowers mainly for encouraging
her love of literature.
Mrs. Viola Cullinan
A Southern white woman in Stamps and Maya’s first
employer. Perhaps unwittingly, she hides her racism under a self-deceptive
veneer of gentility. Mrs. Cullinan’s disrespect for Maya’s wish
to be called by her given name leads to Maya’s subtly rebellious smashing
of the Cullinans’ china.
Hallelujah) Mrs. Cullinan’s cook. A descendent of the slaves once
owned by the Cullinan family, her acceptance of Mrs. Cullinan’s condescending
and racist renaming practices contrasts with Maya’s resistance.
Mr. Edward Donleavy
A white speaker at Maya’s eighth-grade graduation
ceremony. He insults the black community by talking condescendingly,
but not explicitly, of their limited potential in a racist society.
His racist tone casts a pall over the graduation and infuriates
valedictorian of Maya’s eighth-grade graduating class. He leads
the class in “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” popularly known as the
Black National Anthem, and renews his community’s pride following
Mr. Donleavy’s speech. This moment catalyzes Maya’s great pride
in her heritage and also inspires her passion for black poets and
Big Bailey’s prim-and-proper live-in girlfriend
in Los Angeles. Maya spends the summer with them when she is fifteen
and drives Dolores into a jealous rage. Maya’s decision to show
compassion toward her shows Maya’s capacity for mercy, despite her
self-aware and proud nature.
Maya’s first friend outside her family. When she
is with Louise, Maya is able to escape her troubles and play like
a child should.
eighth-grader who writes Maya a valentine. Maya reacts with hostility
at first, distrusting any man’s advances after the rape. She softens
when Tommy writes her another letter showing that his interest in
her is sincere.
first love, with whom he loses his virginity. Joyce’s relationship
with Bailey foreshadows the troubles associated with adolescent
sexuality that Maya will experience in San Francisco. Four years older
than Bailey, Joyce turns his innocent displays of sexual curiosity
playing “Momma and Papa” into sexual intercourse and eventually
runs away with a railroad porter whom she meets at the store, leaving Bailey
heartbroken and morose.
white dentist in Stamps to whom Momma lent money during the Great
Depression. Momma’s staunch effort to appeal to his sense of ethics
to support her in treating Maya’s tooth shows both her resolve and
her ability to act somewhat unethically out of necessity. The scene
also reinforces Maya’s impression of Momma as a superhero.
Stonewall Jimmy, Spots, Just Black, Cool
Clyde, Tight Coat, and Red Leg Daddy
con-men friends, who teach Maya that it is possible to use white
prejudice to gain advantage over whites. They represent creativity and
the ethics that result from necessity and desperation.
Mrs. Florida Taylor
Mr. Taylor’s wife of forty years. Maya attends Florida’s
funeral and confronts her own mortality for the first time.
teacher in San Francisco. Miss Kirwin
treats Maya like an equal human being, regardless of her color.