I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Mother (Vivien Baxter) Character Analysis

Bailey and Maya’s mother is a beautiful light-skinned black woman who, according to Marguerite, looks just like a movie star. She is no longer with the children’s father, and dates other men over the course of the book (one of whom, Mr. Freeman, rapes Marguerite). Vivien, though a frequently absent mother, is full of life and joy and cares deeply for her children.

Mother (Vivien Baxter) Quotes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings quotes below are all either spoken by Mother (Vivien Baxter) or refer to Mother (Vivien Baxter). 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 17 Quotes

I laughed because, except that she was white, the big movie star looked just like my mother…and it was funny to think of the whitefolks’ not knowing that.

Related Characters: Maya Angelou (speaker), Mother (Vivien Baxter)
Page Number: 118-119
Explanation and Analysis:

Inspired by Bailey’s earlier insistence that a white actress in a movie he sees looks exactly like their mother, Maya sees the actress in another film a few months later. This is one of a few moments in this book when humor (and sometimes laughter) takes over— and, like the moment in church when Maya cannot control her laughter, this one is caused by something Bailey says. Her brother is one of the great sources of humor in her youth, and here it is funny because Bailey ends up spot-on about the resemblance between their mother and the white actress.

To Maya, it is hilarious to think that the “whitefolks” could “not know” something as shocking as the fact that a black woman (and a non-famous one at that) could look as good as a famous white actress. Humor and interior monologue often give Maya a way break from the way other people see her and her blackness and see things in a radically new way; in this case, the realization isn’t so much that black women can be beautiful, but that white people either don’t know how beautiful they can be or won’t acknowledge it. Put another way, Maya has discovered how white people’s own arrogance can make them blind and be a kind of weakness.

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Mother (Vivien Baxter) Character Timeline in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The timeline below shows where the character Mother (Vivien Baxter) appears in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 9
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
When they finally arrive and see their mother, Vivien, the children are blown away. She is light skinned (“butter colored”) and wears lipstick.... (full context)
Chapter 10
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
One of their mother’s brothers tells Marguerite one day that it doesn’t matter if she isn’t pretty, because she... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Their mother has a live-in boyfriend named Mr. Freeman. He is fat and ugly and seems to... (full context)
Chapter 11
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
Marguerite begins sleeping in her mother’s bed because of nightmares. One morning she wakes up after her mother has left, and... (full context)
Chapter 12
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
One afternoon when Vivien and Bailey are out for the day, Mr. Freeman calls Marguerite over to him. She... (full context)
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...hard and painful for her to sit on. She goes home and goes to bed. Mother returns and makes Marguerite soup, believing her to have come down with some virus. Mr.... (full context)
Chapter 13
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...sentence even starts he is found beaten to death outside town. It is likely that Vivien’s brothers killed him. Meanwhile, Vivien also decides that Marguerite and Bailey would be better off... (full context)
Chapter 17
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Later Bailey explains to Marguerite that he’d seen Mother at the movies—a white actress that looked exactly like Vivien was in the movie he... (full context)
Chapter 26
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...to life in California. Looking back, Maya can see how remarkable it was that her grandmother adjusted to living in LA, which was so different and so far away from the... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
Bailey and Marguerite drive to San Francisco with their mother (Vivien). They live in a dingy Oakland apartment. One night Mother wakes Marguerite up at... (full context)
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
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...frightened and runs all the way home, where she is comforted. Not long after this, Mother marries Daddy Clidell, who will be the first father Marguerite has ever known. (full context)
Chapter 31
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Home and Displacement Theme Icon
...Big Bailey. Dolores accuses her of eavesdropping. The argument escalates until Dolores ends up calling Vivien a whore, which sends Marguerite into a rage. She slaps her and tackles Dolores. They... (full context)
Chapter 32
Race, Inequality, and Identity Theme Icon
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
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...for difference that she hadn’t had before. After her wound is healed, she calls her mother and returns to her. When she sees her she knows her mother is a fine... (full context)
Chapter 33
Language Theme Icon
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Bailey and his mother’s relationship has become fraught and contentious. They push each other’s buttons and drive each other... (full context)
Chapter 35
Sex, Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
...a teenage girl, becomes interested in sex and sexuality. One night she confesses to her mother—with great difficulty—that she believes something is “growing” on her vagina. She explains what she’s noticed,... (full context)
Chapter 36
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...from everyone, though she avoids lying outright about it. Though her body is changing, her mother asks her no questions, seemingly unaware of Maya’s more feminine figure. Maya suddenly finds school... (full context)
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Vivien and Daddy Clidell respond capably—they assure her everything is going to be okay, and buy... (full context)