I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Momma (Annie Henderson) Character Analysis

Momma is Bailey and Maya’s paternal grandmother, who cares for them for most of their childhoods in Stamps, Arkansas. She is one of the only black storeowners in the area and deeply respected by the black community. She is a devoutly religious woman, and strict with her grandkids, but also ruthlessly protective of them. Eventually she sends Bailey and Maya away to be with their parents in California when it becomes clear that Arkansas is an unsafe place for them to live.

Momma (Annie Henderson) Quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings quotes below are all either spoken by Momma (Annie Henderson) or refer to Momma (Annie Henderson). For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Bantam Books edition of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings published in 1993.
Chapter 7 Quotes

Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Bailey Johnson, Momma (Annie Henderson)
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

In reading this passage, it helps to have a sense of how ardently Maya Angelou worked, throughout her career, to tell new types of stories about blackness and being black in the United States. This quotation clearly emerges in retrospect, as Angelou reflects on the ways Momma held her and Bailey within the safe confines of relative black success as sanctioned by white society. In this passage we find both sympathy for Momma’s beliefs and a real desire to surpass them, to live radically outside of what could be considered “safe” because it wouldn’t offend any of the power-holding white people on the other side of Stamps and the other side of the country.

Momma wants Maya and Bailey to pray diligently, work hard, respect authority; mostly she wants them to keep their heads down. Angelou ends up doing the opposite, of course, writing and publishing a book about her life in Stamps and beyond. So, in many ways, this book is both an affirmation of Momma’s ways (which are described in detail, with respect for the necessity of survival in a world very dangerous to black women) and a piece of tangible evidence that Angelou has exceeded the bounds placed around her.

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Chapter 17 Quotes

The Black woman in the south who raises sons, grandsons, and nephews had her heartstrings tied to a hanging noose.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Bailey Johnson, Momma (Annie Henderson)
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

In this startling passage, Angelou ties the common imagery of “heartstrings” to the uniquely black horror of the “hanging noose.” This shift from a universal image to a very particular one conveys the specificity of Angelou’s claim: it is the southern black woman— and these are the three core aspects of Maya’s political reality— who feels this unique pain of knowing that her son, grandson, and nephew could be killed for just about any sort of infraction, legitimate or not, like Bailey’s failure to return home by sundown. Black men are in unique danger, which puts their family members in a unique state of fear. It is tragic then, in a way, to be a black woman— bound to fear most deeply for the ones she loves.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“Annie, my policy is I’d rather stick my hand in a dog’s mouth than in a nigger’s”

Related Characters: Dr. Lincoln (speaker), Maya Angelou , Momma (Annie Henderson)
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

The strangeness for Maya of hearing anyone speak to Momma the way Dr. Lincoln does is marked first by the jarring “Annie” he calls her by. It is unfamiliar to Maya, and to the reader who has encountered mostly “Momma” for almost two hundred pages. The “Annie” captures how Dr. Lincoln sees Momma as inferior to him, as someone he has the right to call by her first name.

And then comes the brutal excuse, complete with racist epithet, that Dr. Lincoln offers for not treating Maya’s rotten teeth: he’d rather touch a dog’s mouth than a black person’s. Of course this is hurtful language, for Momma and especially for Maya, but the real tragedy is that this type of speech is culturally sanctioned; and so any white public figure, like a dentist, can openly abuse black people without any consequences, and can do so in “legal” language and refer to their own racism as a kind of “policy.” The black people being abused meanwhile, have to simply take the abuse or risk death for any sort of self-defense.

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Momma (Annie Henderson) Character Timeline in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The timeline below shows where the character Momma (Annie Henderson) appears in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...is three and Bailey is four. They’d been sent on the train to live with their grandmother after their parents had decided to divorce. Years later, Maya writes, she would discover that... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Marguerite and Bailey’s grandmother, whom they call Momma, has owned a store for 25 years. The store is central to black life in... (full context)
Chapter 2
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
Uncle Willie lives with Momma too—he is a bog man, who was crippled in an accident as a child. In... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...his race doesn’t matter; she does, however, have to hide her love of Shakespeare from Momma, who wouldn’t approve if she found out Maya’s literary hero was a white man. (full context)
Chapter 3
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...had “messed with” a white woman today. He, with a condescending kind of benevolence, tells Momma she better hide Willie, because “the boys” would be in town tonight. “The boys” are... (full context)
Chapter 5
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...is their elder. One afternoon a group of powhitetrash children comes down the street toward Momma’s house. Marguerite is nervous and Momma tells her to go inside the house; Marguerite obeys,... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
The children harass Momma, who sings a hymn. They “ape” her—which involves doing a degrading kind of monkey dance.... (full context)
Chapter 6
Religion Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
The Reverend often comes to visit Momma at the house, and she always welcomes him, but Marguerite hates him. She doesn’t know... (full context)
Chapter 7
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
Marguerite sees Momma as one of the strongest and most powerful people in Stamps. She was the only... (full context)
Chapter 8
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...to spend money on readymade (i.e. not homemade) clothes even if they could afford them. Momma is a prime example of this—she is so frugal and diligent that she manages to... (full context)
Chapter 11
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...wrong or not. Then Mr. Freeman puts his hands between her legs, and she remembers Momma told her to keep her legs closed, and feels guilty. Mr. Freeman asks Marguerite to... (full context)
Chapter 14
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Momma and Willie treat Marguerite gently upon her return from St. Louis. She wanders about Stamps... (full context)
Chapter 15
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...first time in her life she is liked—not because she is related to Bailey or Momma, but just because she is herself. (full context)
Religion Theme Icon
...Then she says “By the way,” and tells Bailey Mrs. Flowers sent him some cookies. Momma comes into the room in a rage and whips Marguerite. Marguerite is utterly confused and... (full context)
Chapter 16
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Momma decides that Marguerite should learn refined manners, and therefore sends Marguerite to work as a... (full context)
Chapter 17
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...that you must always fear the worst if your boy doesn’t return home on time. Momma and Marguerite walk down to the end of the lane to wait for Bailey. After... (full context)
Chapter 19
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
Every black person in town is gathered in Momma’s store to listen to the radio coverage of Joe Louis’s fight. Joe Louis is a... (full context)
Chapter 22
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
...Taylor, comes to visit the house. George’s wife, Mrs. Taylor, died about six months ago. Momma offers her condolences to him, and remarks offhand that it’s a pity they never had... (full context)
Religion Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...one day. When Mr. Taylor finishes his story about the angel and the ghostly voice, Momma has a slightly amused look on her face. That night Marguerite crawls into bed with... (full context)
Chapter 23
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
...she is able to have her moment. She wears a gorgeous yellow dress handmade by Momma and feels pretty and important. She is deeply excited for the ceremony—on the morning of... (full context)
Chapter 24
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...is excruciating. It becomes clear that she needs to see a dentist. She walks with Momma to the white part of town, and works hard to maintain a dignified appearance and... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Dr. Lincoln emerges. Momma explains that Marguerite has two rotten teeth and needs them pulled by a dentist. Dr.... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
Momma and Marguerite catch a Greyhound to Texarkana where they can see a dentist for blacks.... (full context)
Chapter 25
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
One day Momma tells the children it is time for them to move to California. Marguerite is fairly... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
Momma has to organize the transportation. She will ride with Marguerite on the train about a... (full context)
Chapter 26
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
Momma and Marguerite and Bailey live in Los Angeles together while the children adjust to life... (full context)