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Character Analysis–I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Essay, Research Paper

In Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya’s beautiful, vivacious biological mother, Vivian Baxter, emerges as an important character in her daughter’s life. Vivian endures as a black woman in a white man’s world by displaying strength, honesty, and toughness, which lead to self- preservation. Vivian lives within the St. Louis jazz society where blacks are faced with “? the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well- dressed.” Ms. Angelou provides her readers with a vivid description of an unwilling mother thrust in and out of maternal situations during a thirteen-year span in which she survives as an entertainer in bars from St. Louis to San Francisco. Despite displaying character traits that may be interpreted as unmotherly, Vivian Baxter is, nevertheless, a positive role model for her daughter, Maya.

Vivian is a very self- centered human being who considers herself her number one priority. Even so, she never doubts her love for her children, and mothers them in the only way she knows. Vivian abandons her children, Bailey and Maya, when they are very young. Written from the author’s point of view, the story does not reveal the specifics leading up to this abandonment. The reader, however, can consider the circumstances surrounding a failed marriage of a Black couple during the Depression, and understand Vivian’s inner conflict concerning sending her children away. The audience concludes with the mother that the children will receive a more proper upbringing elsewhere. Consequently, Vivian allows her mother-in-law to provide Maya and Bailey with a stable home life and a mother figure. The children grow and develop with “Momma”, and are shocked to discover, when Maya is six, that their biological mother is still alive. Maya cannot understand how her mother could have deserted her. She says that no real mother would ” laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children.”

A year later, when the children arrive in St. Louis to live with their mother, Vivian is not really prepared to be a parent, but attempts to make their life with her enjoyable. For instance, early one morning, Vivian awakens Maya and Bailey and tells them to go to the kitchen. The children are delighted to discover that she has thrown a surprise party for them, for no other reason than they are her children. They eat biscuits and watch their mother sing and dance. Even though Vivian is not sure how to raise her children, she still tries to connect with them and be a good mother. Vivian also gives the children opportunities they never would have experienced had they stayed in Stamps. She takes them to Chinese and Italian restaurants, and introduces them to Hungarian goulash. In this way, they experience many different types of people and cultures outside of their own small world.

Another example of Vivian’s selfishness occurs when Maya becomes pregnant. Vivian does not even realize that Maya is expecting a baby. She is so involved in her own matters that as long as her daughter looks happy and healthy, Vivian figures she must be. However, it would have been extremely helpful to Maya if her mother had been there to offer advice and assistance. When she finally finds out, Maya is due to deliver the baby in just two weeks. Vivian tries to make up for the lost time by making the rest of Maya’s pregnancy special. They buy baby clothes, get vitamins, and visit numerous doctors. Although Vivian missed much of the pregnancy, she is determined to act the part of a caring mother for the last couple of weeks. This motherly devotion gives Maya a bit of reassurance during this terrifying experience.

An additional character trait the reader discovers about Vivian is that she is very blunt and straight- forward when dealing with matters. When she discovers that Maya has been skipping school, she does not explode into a rage like many adults would. Instead, she simply tells her daughter that if there were no tests in school one day, and she was caught up in her schoolwork, she could tell her mother and not attend. This way of handling the situation makes it nearly impossible for Maya to continue to be truant, and the matter is solved quickly and easily. Another time, Maya is afraid she is turning into a lesbian. Vivian deals with the situation nonchalantly, and tells Maya that she is perfectly normal. “?The Man upstairs, he don’t make mistakes. He gave you to me to be my girl and that’s just what you are.” Vivian knows how to tame Maya’s fears without embarrassing her.

Finally, Vivian is stubborn and tough from growing up black in a white world. She has succeeded, makes a living for herself, and is well known and respected in a time when most women are not. Perhaps the road has been easier for her because of her physical beauty and being very light skinned. She is so attractive, Maya and her brother can even pretend a white movie star is their mother. They comment, “She was too beautiful to have children.” Vivian dances and sings at a bar, and, according to Maya, “talked with her whole body and snapped her fingers louder than anyone in the whole world.” Her mother’s world is so different from anything Maya had ever known that she seemed almost unreal. “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power.”

Vivian, although intelligent, lives a fast-paced life, and is unconcerned with the specifics of her children’s lives. “Vivian Baxter could and would deal with grand schemes and large plots, but please, pray God, spare her the details.” Maya’s mother “goes with the flow”, much like the jazz music she sings. Interestingly, the name Vivian is derived from the Latin root, vivo, which means “I live”. Vivian, does, indeed, live life to its fullest.

Vivian’s stubbornness and perseverance are instilled in her daughter. When Maya wants to get a job as a streetcar driver, she is told that blacks are not allowed to hold that position. Vivian, however, does not accept this. She tells Maya, “That’s what you want to do? Then nothing beats a trial but a failure. Give it everything you’ve got.” This comment gives Maya the confidence she needs to continue to pursue the job and ultimately to obtain the position.

Although Vivian does not essentially change throughout the course of the narrative, she does help change and mold her daughter, Maya. Ms. Angelou refers to long ago situations with such striking detail that it is evident her mother played an essential role in her life. The author calls her parent “Mother Dear” in a respectful, not condescending, tone. Additionally, Angelou capitalizes “Mother” in this autobiography, while “father” remains in lowercase. The reader concludes that, purposefully or not, the character Vivian Baxter played an important role in Maya Angelou’s life.

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