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Chasing Rainbows: a black girl's search for inspiration and identity (Chapter 2)

At the end of the rainbow : the discovery of self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

“This is who we are when we are at our best – we are RAINBOWS.” (Maya Angelou )

Bryan D. Bourn attributes Maya Angelou’s success as a writer to her African-American heritage, with its emphasis on the rhythm of language and the conveyance of emotion. In the African-American tradition, the ‘emotion usually starts out at a low smoulder, which the author (or storyteller) builds upon until it is a full blown fire.’ There is little after the climax in order to leave the reader with a lasting impression. Angelou first experienced the African-American oral tradition through the black church, her love of which influences the language in her writing: “I’ve used, or tried to use, the form of the Black minister in storytelling so that each event I write about has a beginning, a middle and an end.” Maya Angelou reveals the plot of Caged Bird through a series of stories, each detailing an event in Maya’s childhood. For the majority of the book, each episode follows a pattern, that is, Maya is faced with an issue or problem that she must confront and overcome. Like a Black minister, her stories have a beginning, which presents a problem, middle, and an end, where a resolution is reached. However, Maya Angelou also admits that this is partly due to her defining herself as ‘a poet/playwright.’ Angelou’s episodic form, which is ‘almost like acts or scenes’, derives from this literary experience.

Angelou, whose inspiration includes James Weldon Johnson and his Negro national anthem, demonstrates the influence of the African-American literary tradition in the title of her autobiography. The title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is taken from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “Sympathy”. Indeed, it could be argued that the poem symbolises the racial oppression witnessed throughout Maya’s childhood:

I know why the caged bird sings. Ah, me, when its wins are bruised and its bosom sore, It beats its bars and would be free, It’s not a carol of joy or glee, but a prayer that it sends from its heart’s deep core, but a plea that upward to heaven it flings. I know why the caged bird sings.

The poem also emphasises the soothing power of black religion in Stamps during Angelou’s childhood. Blacks used their prayers and songs to Heaven to alleviate their pain and suffering from an existence marginally better than slavery.

Maya Angelou uses autobiography to ‘define her quest for human individuality’, linking her personal struggle with that of all Black Americans. Angelou not only describes her own personal circumstances, but also the surrounding community of Southern America in the 1930s, in relation to her ‘spiritual growth and awareness’ . Although Angelou feels that she is telling ‘a truth about a time and an ethos in the national Black Community’ , she does not claim that her individual story includes everyone. The main problem with autobiography is selecting the incidents that best reflect the process of self-knowledge. Angelou admits that it was difficult to chose an incident that would give her the ‘“chance to show that aspect of human personality, of life which impacted on [her] from which [she] drew and grew.”’ Therefore Angelou chose the aspects which best illustrated her quest for identity and self-knowledge.

The central themes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings include the healing power of religion; perceptions of beauty, which are primarily defined by society; abandonment, which leads to independence; the exploration of sexual experience; the crippling effects of racial discrimination; and the relationship with the community and family. All of these themes, or experiences, are necessary to define who Maya Angelou is.

Religion is one of the greatest influences on the life and work of Maya Angelou. Her early experiences of going to church, where ‘the minister would make the Bible come alive’ , educated Maya about the creative and healing power of religion. Maya admits that even her dislike of Reverend Thomas, who ‘ate the biggest, brownest and best parts of the chicken at every Sunday meal’ , could not discourage her love for the church: ‘I was stretched between loathing his voice and wanting to listen to the sermon. Deuteronomy was my favourite book in the Bible.’ The importance of the vibrant church language, which influenced Angelou’s own writing, is illustrated in Maya’s assertion that she ‘also liked the way the word [Deuteronomy] rolled off the tongue.’

Religion in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a positive, creative force, but it does not promote change. Rather than challenging the cause of oppression, religion serves as a mechanism for coping with oppression. When Mrs. Henderson is threatened by the ridicule of the powhitetrash children, religion enables her to remain strong. While the white girls mock “Momma” by imitating her behaviour and baring their bodies to her, she merely sings a hymn. Mrs. Henderson gains a psychological victory over the whites because they fail to elicit a response from her, ‘Momma never turned her head or unfolded her arms’. Mrs. Henderson is not threatened by the whites’ derogatory behaviour because she uses religion as a protective shield.

Maya Angelou emphasises the regenerative power of religion in her depiction of the revival meeting. The members of the Stamps’ community attributed their ability to endure a day’s heavy toil to the power of religion: ‘People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all.’ The people of Stamps, who had been ‘worked like oxen’ all day, dragged themselves to the revival meeting and found comfort in the unifying religion that brought together ‘Members of the hoity-toity Mount Zion Baptist Church [...,] intellectual members of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and the plain working people of the Christian Methodist Episcopal.’ The people of the community are lifted out of their oppression by the uplifting sermon. Maya observes that Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, ‘who only a few hours earlier had crumbled in our front yard [...,] now sat on the edges of their rickety-rackety chairs. Their faces shone with the delight of their souls.’ The religious meeting reassures the blacks that God will protect them and give the ‘mean whitefolks’ the ‘comeuppance’ they deserve. The purpose of the revival meeting is to alleviate the suffering of blacks in Stamps, to encourage them to ‘bear up under this life of toil and cares, because a blessed home awaited them in the far-off bye and bye.’

However, religion cannot prevent the actual suffering of blacks on earth, therefore after the revival meeting, reality ‘began its tedious crawl back into their reasoning’, reminding blacks that ‘they were needy and hungry and despised and dispossessed’. Maya Angelou emphasises that blacks longed for an end to their suffering, as they pleaded ‘How long, merciful Father? How long?’

At the beginning of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya’s perception of beauty is based on the white notion of beauty, which values blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. Maya criticises her own appearance and hopes that she will be miraculously transformed into ‘one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world.’ Maya envisages waking up out of her ‘black ugly dream’ to find her ‘real hair, which was long and blond’ and her ‘light-blue eyes [that] were going to hypnotize’ everyone. In reality, Maya perceives herself to be ‘a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.’ Like Grier and Cobbs argue, ‘if the society says that to be attractive is to be white, [the Black woman] finds herself unwittingly striving to be something she cannot possibly be’. Throughout her childhood, Maya internalises society’s pressures and develops the belief that white is beautiful.

However, Maya does appreciate that black people can be beautiful. At an early age, Maya is ashamed of the difference in appearance between her and Bailey:

Whereas I was big, elbowy and grating, he was small, graceful and smooth. When I was described by our playmates as being shit color, he was lauded for his velvet-black skin. His hair fell down in black curls, and my head was covered with black steel wool.

Like Pecola, in The Bluest Eye, other blacks, as well as whites diminish Maya’s sense of self-worth, as she admits that her ‘family was handsome to a point of pain for [her]’. Similarly, Maya feels painfully awkward about people comparing her ugliness with Bailey Senior’s attractiveness: ‘the possibility of being compared with him occurred to me, and I didn’t want anyone to see him.’ Although Maya is proud of their beauty, she is afraid of being compared with her brother and father – and rejected because of this comparison. However, Maya witnesses a beauty far greater than theirs and the beauty of whites when she meets her mother, Vivian Baxter. Maya exclaims that her ‘mother’s beauty literally assailed [her]’ and that she ‘had never seen a woman as pretty as she who was called “Mother”.’ Maya feels divided from Vivian and Bailey Jr. because they ‘both had physical beauty and personality.’

Although Maya feels painfully inferior in appearance to her mother and brother, her family also helps to boost Maya’s self-esteem. Maya’s uncle Tommy reassures her ‘ “Ritie, don’t worry ’cause you ain’t pretty... I rather you have a good mind than a cute behind.” ’ Maya’s intelligence more than compensates for her appearance. Once Maya realises that black people are beautiful, she feels less insecure about her black features. Maya’s relationship with Mrs. Flowers increases her self-esteem because Maya realises that ‘[she] was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister, but for just being Marguerite Johnson.’

Maya’s new awareness of black beauty is accompanied by her realisation of white ugliness, embodied by Mrs. Viola Cullinan, Maya’s white employer, who was ‘singularly unattractive until she smiled.’ Even the beautiful movie star, Kay Francis’ beauty pales in comparison with the beauty of Vivian Baxter. When Maya accompanies Bailey to watch Kay Francis’ film she is amazed by the similarity of the actress to her mother, Vivian Baxter, whilst realising that ‘[her] mother was prettier. Much Prettier.’ Through Maya’s realisation that beauty is not necessarily associated with skin colour she can grow to love her own appearance.

Throughout Caged Bird, it is possible to follow Maya’s increasing self-confidence and appreciation of her own beauty. On her graduation day, Maya finally learns to appreciate her appearance, stating that she ‘was going to be lovely’ and that her ‘hair pleased [her] too.’ Maya feels confident about her appearance on graduation day because ‘everyone said [she] looked like a sunbeam’ in her new dress. In her association with a sunbeam, Maya is warm, strong and beautiful. As well as appreciating beauty as a characteristic of the ‘wonderful, beautiful Negro race’ , Maya has begun to accept the compliments that she receives. By the time of her adventure in Mexico, Maya perceives herself to be a ‘special person’ and ‘superbly intelligent’ – ultimately she recognises herself as ‘the brilliant Marguerite Johnson.’

Although Maya appreciates her own brilliance, she doubts her femininity. From reading The Well of Loneliness Maya convinces herself that she is a lesbian, stating the evidence as her heavy voice, her hands and feet that were ‘far from being feminine and dainty’ and her breasts that were ‘sadly underdeveloped’. This insecurity about her femininity leads her to admire her friend’s womanly breasts. Maya Angelou admits in retrospect that she ‘was moved by both an aesthetic sense of beauty and the pure emotion of envy.’ In response to her confusion, Maya longs for a boyfriend to ‘guide [her] into that strange and exotic land of frills and femininity.’ This implies that a woman needs to have a relationship with a man in order to be feminine. In order to achieve self-appreciation, Maya must learn to love herself as a woman not a gender construct.

One of the reasons behind Maya’s low self-esteem is her sense of abandonment. Maya’s shield against her feelings of abandonment is echoed in the Easter poem: “What you looking at me for?/ I didn’t come to stay...” The poem emphasises the impermanence of Maya’s life, characterised by a cycle of ‘returning and leaving.’ However, unlike Christ, ‘Maya cannot be reborn into another life where she will be white and perfect and wonderful.’ Maya and Bailey, aged just three and four, arrived in Stamps wearing tags on their wrists ‘which instructed – “To Whom It May Concern” – that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.’ The children are sent like a parcel to live with their grandmother. Maya and Bailey, protected by their youth, are convinced that their parents must be dead rather than abandon their children. Maya says that ‘[she] couldn’t believe that [their] mother would laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children.’ When the children receive Christmas gifts from their parents, their fantasy world is shattered: ‘The gifts opened the door to questions that neither of us wanted to ask. Why did they send us away? and What did we do that was so wrong?’

Meeting their father confronts their fears of abandonment, and the children wait to hear that Bailey Sr. is leaving them again. When Bailey Sr. says that he will be going back to California, Maya was relieved because ‘the silent threat that had hung in the air since his arrival, the threat of his leaving someday would be gone.’ However, their father takes Maya and Bailey to meet their mother, Vivian Baxter. When their father leaves them with their mother in St. Louis, Maya admits that she was ‘neither glad nor sorry’ because Bailey Sr. ‘was a stranger, and if he chose to leave us with a stranger, it was all of one piece.’ This resignation is Maya’s typical response to her sense of abandonment.

Just as Maya felt that her stay in Stamps was not permanent, she felt in her mind ‘[she] only stayed in St. Louis for a few weeks...[She] carried the same shield that [she] had used in Stamps: “I didn’t come to stay.”’ Due to a lack of security, Maya at first welcomes her encounter with Mr. Freeman because it was her first experience of warmth and intimacy. Maya admits that ‘[she] felt at home’ when Mr. Freeman first holds her. When Mr. Freeman keeps his distance for a while, Maya was ‘hurt and for a time felt lonelier than ever.’ However, Maya soon experiences unimaginable pain that teaches her not to trust men, and she has to move again. In leaving St. Louis, Maya ‘had no more thought of [their] destination than if [she] had simply been heading for the toilet.’

Later in her life, Maya’s loneliness and isolation is celebrated as a sense of freedom. When she sleeps in a San Diego junkyard, Maya admits that the ‘idea of sleeping in the near open bolstered [her] sense of freedom.’ Maya relishes the opportunity to be independent, optimistically describing her car as ‘an island’ in a junkyard sea, where she can be ‘all alone and full of warm.’ The positive aspect of isolation is summarised when Maya states: ‘To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision.’ Even during her pregnancy, Maya is isolated, as she carries the burden ‘onto [her] own shoulders where it belonged.’ Maya’s loneliness is finally terminated with the birth of her son.

Maya’s loneliness and isolation meant that she eagerly welcomed Mr. Freeman’s attention. However, Mr. Freeman betrays Maya’s trust in him as a father figure by violating her body. At first, Maya is confused about what Mr. Freeman’s intentions are, but is pleased when he holds her. From this closeness, Maya deduces that Mr. Freeman would never ‘let [her] go or let anything bad ever happen to [her].’ However, this assumption is disappointed when Mr. Freeman accuses Maya of urinating in the bed. From this point, Maya associates sexual experiences with shame. Mr. Freeman shows an even more sinister side when he threatens Maya: ‘“If you ever tell anybody what we did, I’ll have to kill Bailey.”’ Maya finds out that instead of protecting her, Mr. Freeman will harm her and Bailey if she speaks. This mirrors Celie’s stepfather’s threat in The Color Purple, which threatens the life of Celie’s mother.

Despite the threatening behaviour of Mr. Freeman, Maya began to feel lonely for ‘the encasement in his big arms.’ After years of loneliness, Maya’s world includes physical contact for the first time, even if that contact is accompanied with shame and fear. Although Maya feels lonely for a while, at the time of her rape Maya ‘didn’t think about holding time until [she] got close to him.’ However, when Maya realises what Mr. Freeman wants, Maya says ‘“No, sir, Mr. Freeman”’, and backs away. Maya ‘didn’t want to touch that mushy-hard thing again’ and felt no desire for him to hold her. When Mr. Freeman began to pull down Maya’s ‘drawers’, she hoped that at ‘any minute [her] mother or Bailey or the Green Hornet would bust in the door and save [her].’ Out of fear, Maya withdraws into her fantasy world, just like Pecola’s world of blue eyes, where a comic book character can save her from Mr. Freeman’s advances. Like before, Mr. Freeman threatens Maya that if she screams he will kill her and Bailey.

After the painful act of rape, Maya expresses the loss of innocence and childhood that has been forced by Mr. Freeman. Maya remembers that she cannot sit on the seats in the library because ‘they had been constructed for children’. Even after the rape, Mr. Freeman threatens Maya, leaning over her bed with ‘his whole face a threat that could have smothered [Maya].’ However, instead of solely blaming Mr. Freeman, Maya also assumes responsibility, saying that ‘what [she] allowed, must have been very bad if already God let [her] hurt so much.’ In hospital, Maya realises that ‘[she] was eight and grown.’ The act of rape turns an innocent girl into a woman. Maya voices her hatred of Mr. Freeman in the court, when she shouts: ‘“Ole, mean, dirty thing, you. Dirty old thing.”’ However, she does not wish to cause him pain like he inflicted upon her. When Maya hears about Mr. Freeman’s death, she blames herself for lying in court. Maya decides to be silent in order to prevent ‘the evilness flowing through [her] body’ from rushing off her tongue. Maya’s refusal to speak to anyone other than Bailey causes the children to be sent back to Stamps.

Back in Stamps, Maya feels paranoid about what people think about her. Maya worries that Uncle Willie knows and asserts that she did not want ‘a cripple’s sympathy’, nor did she want Uncle Willie to think of her as ‘being sinful and dirty.’ After the rape, Maya’s behaviour is altered since she is no longer a child. At the summer fish fry picnic, Maya cannot squat behind a tree like the young children, because she feels ‘ages old and very wise at ten’. However, her friendship with Louise Kendricks allows Maya to enjoy childish pursuits. Maya was grateful that ‘after being a woman for three years [she] was about to become a girl.’

Another effect of the rape is that Maya does not trust boys or men any more. When Maya receives a love note from Tommy Valdon, she questions ‘what evil dirty things did he have in mind?’ Maya associates love with rape and sex after her experience with Mr. Freeman, meaning that she is lonely due to her inability to trust males. When Bailey embarks upon a relationship with Joyce, Maya uses her experience to warn Bailey against having sex: ‘I thought he would go to the hospital if he let her do that to him, so I warned him, “Bailey, if you let her do that to you, you’ll be sorry.”’ Maya associates sex with rape and pain after her ordeal, marring her future interactions.

Growing up is a difficult process, but it is worse if you are a ‘Southern Black girl’ who has to cope with racism as well as all the other trials of life. Maya admits that her awareness of her displacement in society, both as a female and black, ‘is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.’ At a very early age Maya ‘didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like’ because of the complete segregation of Stamps. Maya simply associates whites with fear, ‘the hostility of the powerless against the powerful’. Instead of thinking of whites as people, Maya associates them with the hostility of racism and segregation. If Maya despairs at being black and female, she also portrays ‘the dual peril of being Black and crippled’ when Uncle Willie has to hide in a potato bin to avoid the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan. Through this terrifying ordeal, Maya learns that ‘lameness offers no protection from the wrath of bigots.’

When Maya goes to work for Mrs. Cullinan, her interaction with white people is not a positive one. Maya learns the importance of her name in affirming her identity when Mrs. Cullinan decides to rename her first ‘Margaret’, which Maya pities her for not being able to pronounce properly. Then Mrs. Cullinan adopts her friend’s suggestion, calling Maya ‘Mary’. Although ‘every person [Maya] knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name”’ , Maya decides to take revenge by breaking Mrs. Cullinan’s Virginian dishes. Like Claudia MacTeer’s violence towards dolls, Maya sustains her sense of identity by violently reacting against the racism of whites.

Even Maya’s graduation day is marred by the Whites’ presence, when Mr. Donleavy tells them that the ‘white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies...and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.’ The white man implies that Blacks are only capable of sporting achievement, and Maya is furious that a white school official is trying to tell the Blacks who their heroes are. The Blacks ‘dropped their heads’ in shame at their prospective future, and Maya felt that it was ‘awful to be Negro and have no control over [her] life.’ However, the Negro national anthem, by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, uplifted the spirits of the Blacks. A conversation between Uncle Willie and Bailey emphasises the futility of racism. When Bailey asks ‘what colored people had done to white people in the first place’ , the answer, of course, is nothing. Uncle Willie points out that the whites don’t even know the blacks, but that they are ‘mostly scared’. Racism is so complex that Maya defines it as the ‘humorless puzzle of inequality and hate.’

The ideal community depicted by Maya is the communal San Diego junkyard, where Maya saw ‘a collage of Negro, Mexican and white faces’. Here people of all races work together in order to survive. Maya admits that the lack of criticism she received from their ‘ad hoc community’ influenced her, and ‘set a tone of tolerance for [her] life.’ In this community, Maya is allowed to be herself, leaving her at ease with her sense of identity.

Maya’s inspiration for life can be traced back to the community of Stamps. In that ‘early environment’ Maya first encountered ‘heroes and bogey men, values and dislikes’. The community surrounds and protects Maya like a ‘cocoon’ after her rape. It is characterised by a unity present during the communal summer picnic fish fry. While the men fished, a ‘rotating crew of young girls’ cleaned the fish and others cooked them. This is starkly contrasted with St. Louis and San Francisco, where ‘the sensations of common relationship were missing.’ The most supportive community that Maya lives in is the San Diego junkyard, which encourages her independence as well as internalising her into a group. Maya confesses that after a month, ‘[her] thinking processes had so changed that [she] was hardly recognizable to [herself].’

As well as the support of her community, individuals in her life, who shape her life and values, inspire Maya. Maya says of her main inspirations:

The allegiances I owed at this time in my life would have made very strange bedfellows: Momma with her solemn determination, Mrs. Flowers and her books, Bailey with his love, my mother and her gaiety, Miss Kirwin and her information, my evening classes of drama and dance.’

All of these individuals contribute something that is internalised within Maya, which combined form her identity.

Mrs. Annie Henderson or Momma provides Maya’s greatest support. Maya’s love of the church can partly be attributed to Momma’s religious devotion, which formed a part of everyday life in Stamps. To Maya, Momma is a symbol of ‘power and strength’ , whose mere presence was support enough for Maya throughout her childhood. Although Momma is a very private person, she is constantly supportive of Maya. While Momma is ‘often unrelenting in her punishment’, such as the time when Maya said ‘“By the way”’, and has ‘little time or inclination to verbalize affection’, she does ‘usher Maya safely through her childhood and early adolescence.’ Mrs. Henderson, like Mrs. MacTeer in The Bluest Eye, is not openly affectionate but she is a pillar of strength for Maya. When Maya has a toothache, Momma takes her to the white dentist and refuses to take “No” for an answer, not for her ‘grandbaby’ . Maya is so impressed by Momma’s determination that she dreams up an imaginary scenario where Momma conquers the white dentist. Maya is proud of being Annie Henderson’s granddaughter and hoped that ‘some of her magic must have come down to [her].’ Maya’s most vivid memory of Momma is her embrace with her mother in San Francisco, where Momma is depicted as a ‘large, solid dark hen’, who gives support even to Vivian Baxter. Momma’s influence upon Maya’s life is best illustrated in her interview with Dolly McPherson. Maya says that when she went to the Bay Area, ‘[she] used to walk with [her] hands behind [her] like [her] grandma did . Maya not only internalises Momma’s values, but also imitates her behaviour.

Throughout Caged Bird, Maya ‘records an evolution of identity that represents a synthesis of the extremes of her paternal grandmother and her mother.’ Maya’s first perceptions of her mother focus upon her beauty and glamour, but she comes to recognise the power that it gives her mother. Maya comments that her ‘Mother’s beauty made her powerful and her power made her unflinchingly honest.’ Although her beauty and ‘jollity’ define Vivian Baxter, she has a ruthless streak, summarised by her saying that ‘“Sympathy is next to shit in the dictionary”’. However, Maya also argues for her mother’s fairness, giving the example of Vivian’s fight with her partner: ‘He had been shot, true, but in her fairness she had warned him.’ Later when Maya slaps Dolores, she emphasises her similarity to her mother in that she warned Dolores, by saying ‘“I’m going to slap you for that, you silly old bitch.”’ If Maya displays her mother’s fairness, she also demonstrates Vivian’s temper here. Vivian Baxter also encourages Maya’s growing independence because she was ‘a firm believer in self-sufficiency’ and encouraged Maya that anything is possible, with her saying: “‘Can’t do is like Don’t Care.’ Neither of them have a home.” Arguably, Vivian’s support leads Maya to obtain the job as the first black streetcar conductor.

After her rape by Mr. Freeman, Maya is trapped in a cage of silence, but she is thrown a life-line by Mrs. Flowers, ‘one of the finest gentlewomen [she has] ever known, and... the measure of what a human being can be.’ Mrs. Flowers teaches Maya the importance of language. Maya realises from their meetings that the human voice infuses words with ‘shades of deeper meaning.’ Mrs. Flowers gives Maya a valuable love of language that she carries with her: ‘I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.’

In San Francisco, Maya ‘changes into another imagined self: a compound of her mother, Mrs. Flowers, and Miss Kirwin of Washington High School.’ Miss Kirwin was ‘that rare educator who was in love with information.’ Maya respects Miss Kirwin because she does not discriminate her pupils based on colour. Maya feels a sense of belonging because she is not excluded for being Black in a predominantly white school. Her power and beauty that are inter-linked define Vivian Baxter, Mrs. Flowers offers a means of expression, and Miss Kirwin stimulates Maya’s intelligence without discrimination.

Although Bailey is arguably the most important person in Maya’s world when she is a child, adolescence drives a rift between them. During childhood, Bailey satisfies all of Maya’s needs by being her ‘unshakeable god.’ Like Celie’s “God” within Nettie in The Color Purple, Maya thinks that her ‘pretty Black brother was [her] Kingdom Come.’ Although they are inseparable at an early age, later Maya feels that Bailey is not glad to see her because ‘he didn’t act much like it.’ If Bailey feels an emotion, like Momma, he is reluctant to express it. However, Maya still feels a deep love for Bailey and confides in him when she finds herself pregnant at the age of sixteen.

Discussing Maya Angelou’s rainbows of inspiration, one could not possibly forget Uncle Willie. He taught Maya her times tables at the threat of being thrown into the stove: ‘He used to grab me by my clothes and hold me in front of a potbelly stove.’ Maya says that his threat encouraged her to memorise her times tables ‘so exquisitely even now, 60 years later, if [she’s] awakened after an evening of copious libation [she] can be awakened at 3 o’clock in the morning and asked “Do your twelvsies.”’ At Willie’s funeral Maya met the mayor of Little Rock, first Black mayor in the South, who ‘in the twenties... was the only child of a blind mother.’ He owed his success to Uncle Willie for giving him a job in the store and teaching him his times tables in the same way that he taught Maya. If Maya is shocked by this revelation, she is amazed that Uncle Willie also has an impact on a white state legislator in Louisville, who was encouraged to go to school by the mayor of Little Rock . Maya was totally unaware of ‘the range of [Willie’s] influence’ but she does know that Willie is the ‘rainbow in the clouds’ in a time when it seemed like there was no hope left.


  1. Maya Angelou in Lori Rohlk, "Maya Angelou's Rainbows"
  2. Bryan D. Bourn, "Maya Angelou and the African-American Tradition", [28 February 1999].
  3. McPherson, Order Out of Chaos , p.140.
  4. Bryan D. Bourn, op. cit.
  5. Dolly McPherson, Order Out of Chaos , p.142.
  6. Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Sympathy" in David Frost, "An Interview With Maya Angelou", [28 February 1999].
  7. McPherson, op. cit. , p.5.
  8. ibid. , p.6.
  9. ibid. , pp.161-62.
  10. ibid. , pp. 139-40.
  11. ibid. , p.145.
  12. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.34
  13. ibid. , p.37
  14. ibid. , p.38
  15. ibid. , p.31
  16. ibid. , pp.116-117
  17. ibid. , p.117
  18. ibid. , p.120
  19. ibid. , p.123
  20. ibid. , p.123
  21. ibid. , p.125
  22. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.128
  23. ibid. , p.128
  24. ibid. , p.4
  25. ibid. , p.4
  26. ibid. , pp.4-5
  27. McPherson, Order Out of Chaos , p.25
  28. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.21
  29. ibid. , p.21
  30. ibid. , p.54
  31. ibid. , p.58
  32. ibid. , p.59
  33. ibid. , p.66
  34. ibid. , p.98
  35. ibid. , p.102
  36. ibid. , p.115
  37. ibid. , p.166
  38. ibid. , p.168
  39. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.171
  40. ibid. , p.179
  41. ibid. , p.229
  42. ibid. , p.230
  43. ibid. , p.266
  44. ibid. , p.272
  45. ibid. , p.273
  46. ibid. , p.3
  47. McPherson, Order Out of Chaos , p.20
  48. ibid. , p.25
  49. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.6
  50. ibid. , p.50
  51. ibid. , p.51
  52. ibid. , p.54
  53. ibid. , p.59
  54. ibid. , p.68
  55. ibid. , p.71
  56. ibid. , p.73
  57. ibid. , p.86
  58. ibid. , p.245
  59. ibid. , p.264
  60. ibid. , p.277
  61. ibid. , p.71
  62. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.72
  63. ibid. , p.73
  64. ibid. , p.75
  65. ibid. , p.75
  66. ibid. , p.76
  67. ibid. , p.77
  68. ibid. , p.78
  69. ibid. , p.79
  70. ibid. , p.81
  71. ibid. , pp.82-83
  72. ibid. , p.84
  73. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.89
  74. ibid. , p.135
  75. ibid. , p.138
  76. ibid. , p.139
  77. ibid. , p.144
  78. ibid. , p.6
  79. ibid. , pp.24-25
  80. McPherson, Order Out of Chaos , p.33
  81. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.106
  82. ibid. , p.174
  83. ibid. , p.175
  84. ibid. , p.176
  85. ibid. , p.191
  86. ibid. , p.192
  87. ibid. , p.193
  88. ibid. , p.245
  89. ibid. , p.247
  90. ibid. , p.19
  91. ibid. , pp.134-135
  92. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.204
  93. ibid. , p.247
  94. ibid. , p.212
  95. ibid. , p.45
  96. McPherson, Order Out of Chaos , p.30
  97. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.184
  98. ibid. , p.187
  99. ibid. , p.196
  100. McPherson, Order Out of Chaos , p.159
  101. ibid. , p.20
  102. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.200
  103. ibid. , p.201
  104. ibid. , p.203
  105. ibid. , p.239
  106. ibid. , p.257
  107. ibid. , p.258
  108. ibid. , p.91
  109. ibid. , p.95
  110. ibid. , p.195
  111. McPherson, Order Out of Chaos , p.50
  112. Angelou, Caged Bird , p.209
  113. ibid. , p.23
  114. ibid. , p.249
  115. Dr. Maya Angelou at "The Distinguished Annie Clark Tanner Lecture, 16th-annual Families Alive Conference, Weber State University, May 8, 1997", [19 March 1999]
  116. ibid.
  117. ibid.
  118. ibid.