I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
Annie Henderson (Momma)
Momma is one tough cookie—she has to be. Sure, soccer moms today have a lot on their plate with guitar practice, college applications, and Mandarin lessons, but imagine running a store during the Depression while raising polite grandkids and making sure they don't get lynched in the process. This lady is strong and strict—and oh, she has a really cool, deep voice.
The first thing that Annie Henderson does when she wakes up in the morning is pray. The last thing that she does at night is pray. She goes to church each Sunday and sometimes during the week. She knows her Bible verses by heart and will give you a beating if you take the Lord's name in vain. Don't mess with Momma and her God.
Why is religion so important to Momma? Well, to put it simply, it gives her hope and strength to live her otherwise pretty nasty life. Remember the revival? There, the black residents of Stamps reassure themselves that even though their lives are awful now, they will get their reward in the afterlife:
They basked in the righteousness of the poor and the exclusiveness of the downtrodden. […] It was better to be meek and lowly, spat upon and abused for this little time than to spend eternity frying in the fires of Hell. (18.88)
This sentiment shines through again when the white girls come to the Store to taunt Momma. Instead of retaliating, she sings religious songs and finds her strength in God.
Momma is a mom. Actually, she's a super-mom (and super-grandma, for that matter). She teaches Maya and Bailey how to work and she instills in them the importance of education, cleanliness, and manners. Even though she shies away from mushy talk about love ("'God is love'" [9.2] is her go-to response), it is clear that she loves her family and tries her best to take care of them.
When the Ku Klux Klan threatens to ride through Stamps, Momma hides Uncle Willie so that he won't be hurt. When Daddy Bailey comes to town and steals the limelight, she is glad to have him leave so Uncle Willie won't feel inferior. When she worries that Bailey Jr. is old enough to be lynched, she sends him to his parents. And when she sees that Maya is still struggling with her rape, she asks Mrs. Flowers to talk to her. Is there anything this woman doesn't do for her family?
More than any other character in the novel, Momma is a mother figure, and that's why she gets the title. Vivian, on the other hand, gets the more formal and less intimate "Mother Dear" as her nickname. Sure, Vivian is pretty, but Momma is the protector—the one who can even calm down a man raving about his dead wife (Chapter 22). Not bad.
The Store is also tightly wound up in Momma's identity. For nearly three decades, Momma ran the Store on her own, turning it from a small stand into the center of the black community in Stamps. It is how she supports her family, and it seems to be how she knows nearly everyone in town.
Through the Store, Momma not only supports her family, but also helps carry the town through the Depression by trading with her customers and loaning money to both black and white members of Stamps. You could say that she is not just Momma to Uncle Willie, Maya, and Bailey, but to everyone.
"[T]he less you say to whitefolks […] the better." (5.7)
The way that Momma deals with racism is confusing and upsetting to Maya as a child. Let's take a look:
- She lets the "powhitetrash" (5.6) who come to her store call her Annie even though it's disrespectful; but she attempts to preempt their needs so they don't get the chance to order her around.
- She doesn't reprimand the girls who taunt her at her Store; but she stays strong and remains stoic until they leave.
- She doesn't give Dr. Lincoln what he had coming (as Maya imagined); but she does force him to give her some money to help Maya get her teeth fixed.
So what's the deal? Does she stand up against racism, or does she let it conquer her? Well, what would Momma say?
If she had been asked and had chosen to answer the question of whether she was cowardly or not, she would have said that she was a realist. Didn't she stand up to "them" year after year? (7.4)
Either way, while Momma doesn't confront racism in the way that Maya might have liked, she doesn't completely bow down to it either. She represents the old-fashioned way of dealing with racism in the Jim Crow South. And the path that Momma has cleared allows Maya to advance and aggressively fight racism later in her life. Maya stands on the shoulders of women like Momma.Timeline