I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
The Baxter Uncles (Uncle Tutti, Uncle Tom, Uncle Ira, and Uncle Billy)
Maya's uncles are known for three things: their high status jobs, their respected family, and their extreme meanness. Sounds like they've got a case of Downton Abbey. Come to think of it, it's probably more like The Sopranos: they beat up anyone who crosses them, and they become pretty famous in the city for their tempers. If we put two and two together, we can assume that they are the ones who killed Mr. Freeman after his trial.
Before you write them off as scary and unapproachable, though, don't forget that Maya is a fan. In fact, Uncle Tom is the one who tells Maya that it's better for her to be smart than pretty, one of the few compliments that she has ever received—if you can call that a compliment.
Dentist Lincoln is the white dentist in Stamps who refuses to treat Maya. When the conversation begins, he seems like a pretty tame racist. A racist, sure, but not an in-your-face kind. But by the end of the conversation, he admits, "I'd rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's" (24.25). Well, then.
Just picture it: Maya is standing there with a towel around her head and a swollen face, and this guy never even looks at or acknowledges her the whole time he and Momma are talking.
What are the takeaways we get from Dentist Lincoln?
(1) Everyone's a little bit racist. (Especially in the Jim Crow South.) Dentist Lincoln is a lot racist.
(2) Stamps is in the middle of nowhere: the closest black dentist is 25 miles away.
(3) Maya has quite an imagination. When Momma goes inside the office to talk to the dentist, Maya fantasizes that Momma beats him up and exiles him from Stamps. Turns out she only makes him give her ten dollars so that she can take Maya to the dentist in Texarkana. But we like Maya's version better.
"Her hairdresser could count on absolute fidelity and punctuality" (30.8). Need we say more?
Dolores Stockland is Daddy Bailey's girlfriend and would-be wife. She's the total opposite of Vivian: prim and proper. (Read: a total goody-two-shoes.) Although Dolores seems like an odd match for Bailey at first, she shares his longing for grandeur, and acts like nobility even though their circumstances are quite the opposite. Daddy B likes to show off by cooking fancy foreign dishes, and she likes to show off by telling people that he makes her fancy foreign dishes. It's a match made in heaven.
In all her fastidiousness, Dolores might remind you of Mrs. Flowers—but don't be fooled. The most important difference is that Mrs. Flowers teaches Maya not to look down on other people, no matter what. Dolores definitely doesn't play by those rules.
After her fight with Dolores, Maya takes to the streets. So we guess we can thank Dolores for helping our girl become more independent… although we're pretty sure there were better ways to accomplish this.
Grandfather Baxter is the choppy-voiced West Indian who is happily married to Grandmother Baxter. He loves his family more than anything, and raises six children. His fatherly words of advice?: "Bah Jesus, if you ever get in jail for stealing or some such foolishness, I'll let you rot. But if you're arrested for fighting, I'll sell the house, lock, stock, and barrel, to get you out!"(10.18). His kids take this this to mean that it's okay to shoot people.
Grandpa B becomes sick while Maya is in St. Louis, and he dies shortly after she returns to Stamps.
Just like Maya's paternal grandmother (Momma), Grandmother Baxter is one tough cookie.
"[N]early white" (10.1), and with a thick German accent, Grandmother Baxter is the police precinct captain of San Francisco. She makes illicit deals with the thugs and the prostitutes of the city in return for their votes to keep her in office. This fierce lady married West-Indian Grandfather Baxter, and in their happy marriage, they raised six trouble-making kids.
Grandmother Baxter's character changes dramatically when her husband dies. Before, she was the strict, steadfast captain that scared even the toughest guys in the city. When Maya sees her again, she is sick with chronic bronchitis and has developed a smoking addiction. Love sickness, perhaps?
Henry Reed isn't very attractive, and he lives with his strict and religious grandmother. Sound familiar? Yep—Henry Reed is like the male and more well-adjusted version of Maya. Although he is a dork like Maya, he has no problems socializing, and Maya gives him props for that.
Henry attempts to read his valedictory speech after Mr. Donleavy plays party pooper and ruins the mood of the graduation with his racist speech. But eventually he gives up and begins to sing "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" instead. His song lifts the sadness of the graduation and restores the hope of the audience. Virtual high five, Henry!
Joyce is Bailey's first love—other than his mother. She's an orphan, and she lives with her widowed aunt, who is "poorer than the poorest person in town" (21.2). Maya's not a big fan, but Bailey just can't keep his eyes off of her.
And that leads us to our next point: Joyce is also Bailey's first sexual partner. She is four years older than him and even more physically developed than the other fourteen-year-old girls in town. How could he resist? Gradually, Joyce gets bored with Bailey and elopes with a railroad porter to Texas. Poor Bailey.
That's what you get for trying to quell your Oedipal complex with a too-much-older lady friend, we guess.
Ah, first friends.
Maya and Louise become friends when they're both looking for some time to themselves during the big summer picnic. At first, Maya is upset that someone has stumbled into her hideaway, but when she discovers that Louise is as silly and imaginative as she is, they become BFFs.
We're not sure what to think of Louise. Maya thinks she's the prettiest female in Stamps (next to Mrs. Flowers, of course), that she has lots of friends, and that she's super sociable. But she's also described as being lonely and vaguely sad. What do you think?
Louise and Maya share secrets and make up their own language together. Louise also helps Maya decide what to do when she receives a Valentine from Tommy Valdon. (Ooh la la!) No wonder she is the only person that Maya misses when she moves to San Francisco.
Miss Kirwin is no Miss Flowers, but she definitely makes an impact on Maya. This civics and current events teacher at the preppy George Washington High School introduces Maya to the value of information. And as much as she loves literature, Maya finally begins to read magazines and newspapers instead of only fiction and poetry.
This second-best teacher speaks to her students with respect. She is also the only teacher at George Washington High who doesn't treat Maya differently just because she is black. Instead of feeling intimidated, Maya is actually motivated to learn in Miss Kirwin's class. And as we know, that's a desire that sticks with her long after she graduates from high school.
Mr. Edward Donleavy
Mr. Donleavy is the special guest speaker at Maya's eighth-grade graduation ceremony. He's a white politician from Texarkana and, to put it bluntly, he is racist. Not a Dentist Lincoln-style racist, but a racist nonetheless.
Here's how it goes down. He comes to a black middle school and spends most of his time talking about all the awesome art and science stuff the white school in Stamps is going to get. Great start. And to top it off, he totally condescends to the audience, implying that black people are only good at sports.
Bottom line: Mr. Donleavy is patronizing and insulting—and a party pooper to boot!
Mr. George Taylor
Mr. Taylor is a widower who's a bit unstable after his wife of forty years dies. He is bald and has large, vacant eyes. He scares Maya. Oh, and um, he scares us.
Mr. Taylor comes to the Store one night when during a storm (perfect setting for a ghost story!), and he tells the family that he saw his dead wife in a vision. Momma calms him down—as she does.
"An independent Black man" (4.8), Mr. McElroy is an anomaly in Stamps—after all, he's one of the few black men in town who wears a suit. He doesn't laugh, never smiles, and barely speaks to Maya and Bailey. When Maya is young, she thinks of him as a mysterious and impressive dude. But when she's older, she senses that he was just a normal guy who sold patent medicine.
We like young Maya's version better. But author Maya is here to set us straight, right?
Mr. Stewart seems to think that he's the John Wayne of Stamps. He struts around on his horse and pretends he's a hero for warning the black families in Stamps about the KKK. When he tells Momma to hide Uncle Willie, he doesn't even wait for a thank you before he's on his way.
Mrs. Glory (Hallelujah)
Mrs. Glory is Mrs. Cullinan's cook, and she's definitely not into the whole fighting back against racism thing. Mrs. Cullinan has shortened Mrs. Glory's name—just like with Maya—but Mrs. Glory doesn't see any problem with it. She says she even likes Glory better than her birth name! Although, to be fair, Hallelujah is kind of a weird name.
Mrs. Glory is loyal to Mrs. Cullinan and won't let Maya say anything bad about her. When Maya breaks the white woman's casserole dish, Mrs. Glory cries right along with her.
Mrs. Florida Taylor
Mrs. Taylor is Mr. Taylor's deceased wife. She always seemed to like Maya, saying that she had a nice complexion (compliment!) and giving her a yellow brooch. Maya was forced to attend her funeral, and it's there that she thinks for the first time about the possibility of her own death.
Mrs. Viola Cullinan
Mrs. Cullinan is Maya's very first employer. Spoiler alert: the gig doesn't last very long.
Maya is sent to work as a maid as a sort of finishing school, but she ends up trying to get fired when Mrs. Cullinan picks up the habit of calling her "Mary." Here's what we know about boss lady:
- She's fat.
- She's an alcoholic.
- She's ugly.
- She's unable to bear children.
- It is rumored that her husband had beautiful children with one of the black women in town.
- Her house is meticulously organized.
- She is not a very happy lady.
Feel a little sorry for her? Maya does, too, at first. But then she loses all sympathy after Mrs. Cullinan calls her Mary. Maya seems to recognize this as a form of racism and starts a campaign to get fired. Nothing works, until one day she breaks Mrs. Cullinan's favorite casserole and glasses. We last see the lady in a comedic scene where she is crying (oh-so-hilariously) over the broken dishes.
Reverend Howard Thomas (Elder Thomas)
Elder Thomas is the presiding Elder over Maya's church district. He visits Stamps once every three months and stays with the family at the Store each time. Maya and Bailey hate the guy because he always eats the best part of the Sunday meal and prays so long that the food gets cold. Sounds like a good enough reason to hate someone.
This guy is also the center of one of the many strange occurrences at church, when he is attacked by Sister Monroe. She hits him so hard his false teeth fly out of his mouth and land in front of Maya and Bailey Jr. Ba dum ching!
Sister Monroe is an overzealous churchgoer—and that's putting it lightly. She doesn't get to church often because she lives far away, but when she does, she knows how to make a scene. We'll leave it to you to read her scenes. You can thank us later.
Tommy Valdon is a nice-looking academic boy who had the bad sense to send Maya a Valentine. Suspicious of his first Valentine because of her rape, Maya rips it apart with the help of Louise. When he sends a second one, Maya reconsiders, but can't do more than just look at him and giggle. Ah, middle school crushes.