(Marguerite Ann Johnson) Maya Angelou—named Marguerite Ann Johnson at birth—writes about her experiences growing up as a black girl in the rural South and in the cities of St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Maya has an unusual degree of curiosity and perceptiveness. Haunted by her displacement from her biological parents and her sense that she is ugly, Maya often isolates herself, escaping into her reading. Angelou’s autobiography traces the start of her development into an independent, wise, and compassionate woman.
Maya’s older brother. Like Maya, he is intelligent and mature beyond his age. Though Bailey enjoys sports and fares well in social situations, he also shows deep compassion for his isolated sister. Bailey senses the negative influences of racism, but to protect himself from despair, he chooses to anesthetize himself and subdue his soul until the negative moment passes.
(Momma) Maya and Bailey’s paternal grandmother. Momma raises them for most of their childhood. She owns the only store in the black section of Stamps, Arkansas, and it serves as the central gathering place for the black community. She raises the children according to stern Christian values and strict rules. Though she never reacts with emotion, both children feel her love anyway.
Bailey and Maya’s mother. Although she has a nursing degree, she earns most of her money working in gambling parlors or by gambling herself. Though Vivian and Momma have very different values, they are both strong, supportive women. A somewhat inattentive mother, Vivian nevertheless treats her children with love and respect.
Maya and Bailey’s father. Despite his lively personality, he is handsome, vain, and selfish. He stands out among the other rural blacks because of his proper English and his flashy possessions. Maya implies that Big Bailey’s pretensions result from his disenfranchisement as a black man in the United States. Big Bailey does not respect, care for, or connect with Maya.
Momma’s son, who is in his thirties. Injured in a childhood accident, Uncle Willie lives his entire life with Momma. He suffers insults and jokes because of his disability. Like Momma, he is a devout Christian, and he acts as the children’s disciplinarian and protector.
Vivian’s second husband, whom she marries after her children join her in California. Although Maya initially tries to dismiss him, Daddy Clidell becomes the only real “father” Maya knows. He combines the virtues of strength and tenderness and enjoys thinking of himself as Maya’s father. He introduces her to his con-men friends and teaches her how to play poker. A successful businessman despite his lack of education, he remains modest and confident.
Vivian’s live-in boyfriend in St. Louis. When Maya and Bailey move to St. Louis, Mr. Freeman sexually molests and rapes Maya, taking advantage of her need for physical affection and her innocent, self-conscious nature. In retrospect, Maya feels partly responsible for Mr. Freeman’s fate, and her guilt over his murder haunts her throughout her childhood.
A black aristocrat living in Stamps, Arkansas. One of Maya’s idols, she becomes the first person to prod Maya out of her silence after Maya’s rape, taking an interest in Maya and making her feel special. Maya respects Mrs. Flowers mainly for encouraging her love of literature.
A Southern white woman in Stamps and Maya’s first employer. Perhaps unwittingly, she hides her racism under a self-deceptive veneer of gentility. Mrs. Cullinan’s disrespect for Maya’s wish to be called by her given name leads to Maya’s subtly rebellious smashing of the Cullinans’ china.
(Formerly Hallelujah) Mrs. Cullinan’s cook. A descendent of the slaves once owned by the Cullinan family, her acceptance of Mrs. Cullinan’s condescending and racist renaming practices contrasts with Maya’s resistance.
A white speaker at Maya’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony. He insults the black community by talking condescendingly, but not explicitly, of their limited potential in a racist society. His racist tone casts a pall over the graduation and infuriates Maya.
The valedictorian of Maya’s eighth-grade graduating class. He leads the class in “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” popularly known as the Black National Anthem, and renews his community’s pride following Mr. Donleavy’s speech. This moment catalyzes Maya’s great pride in her heritage and also inspires her passion for black poets and orators.
Big Bailey’s prim-and-proper live-in girlfriend in Los Angeles. Maya spends the summer with them when she is fifteen and drives Dolores into a jealous rage. Maya’s decision to show compassion toward her shows Maya’s capacity for mercy, despite her self-aware and proud nature.
Maya’s first friend outside her family. When she is with Louise, Maya is able to escape her troubles and play like a child should.
An eighth-grader who writes Maya a valentine. Maya reacts with hostility at first, distrusting any man’s advances after the rape. She softens when Tommy writes her another letter showing that his interest in her is sincere.
Bailey’s first love, with whom he loses his virginity. Joyce’s relationship with Bailey foreshadows the troubles associated with adolescent sexuality that Maya will experience in San Francisco. Four years older than Bailey, Joyce turns his innocent displays of sexual curiosity playing “Momma and Papa” into sexual intercourse and eventually runs away with a railroad porter whom she meets at the store, leaving Bailey heartbroken and morose.
A white dentist in Stamps to whom Momma lent money during the Great Depression. Momma’s staunch effort to appeal to his sense of ethics to support her in treating Maya’s tooth shows both her resolve and her ability to act somewhat unethically out of necessity. The scene also reinforces Maya’s impression of Momma as a superhero.
Clidell’s con-men friends, who teach Maya that it is possible to use white prejudice to gain advantage over whites. They represent creativity and the ethics that result from necessity and desperation.
Mr. Taylor’s wife of forty years. Maya attends Florida’s funeral and confronts her own mortality for the first time.
Maya’s teacher in San Francisco. Miss Kirwin treats Maya like an equal human being, regardless of her color.