I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou
Characters

Vivian Baxter

Characters Vivian Baxter

Although she has a nursing degree, Maya and Bailey’s mother earns her money working in gambling parlors. Vivian’s parents and brothers are tough city dwellers who thrive in St. Louis amid the chaos of Prohibition, and Vivian seems to have inherited the family’s wild streak. Though her lifestyle differs greatly from that of Momma, Vivian is also strong, proud, practical, and financially independent. She is also devastatingly beautiful—it is fitting that Maya and Bailey discover a white actress with a striking likeness to their mother because to them Vivian appears as a goddess performer who exists in her own personal spotlight. Maya is dumbstruck by Vivian’s magnetic beauty and Bailey falls in love with her at first sight. Maya believes Vivian initially sent them away because Vivian was, in Maya’s opinion, too gorgeous to have children.

Vivian always treats Maya and Bailey well, and it is hard to imagine that she would have sent them so far away as young children. At the same time, however, even when they live together, the children remain peripheral to Vivian’s life. Even after living together for some time and growing closer, Maya notes that Vivian notices Maya not out of the corner of her eye but “out of the corner of her existence.” Showing her practical nature, Vivian sees no need to focus attention on Maya as long as Maya is healthy, well-clothed, and at least outwardly happy.

Throughout the book, Vivian oscillates between her gifts and limitations as a parent. In St. Louis, Vivian does not realize the danger of leaving her young daughter at home with a man who spends all day pining and waiting for her to come home. She does, however, demonstrate a high degree of maternal intuition when her live-in boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, sexually molests and rapes Maya. Without even knowing what has happened, Vivian kicks him out of the house immediately. Later, however, she proves unable to deal with Maya’s post-rape trauma, and Maya and Bailey go back to Stamps. Similarly, in San Francisco, Vivian’s lifestyle prevents her from actively engaging her daughter about Maya’s sexuality, leading indirectly to Maya’s pregnancy. Even so, when Maya becomes pregnant, Vivian supports and encourages her without condemnation, and it is Vivian who gives Maya her first and most important lesson about trusting her maternal instincts. Maya admires Vivian’s unflinching honesty, strength, and caring nature, despite her frequent fumbling as a parent.