The Archetype of Mother in the Character of Mrs. Annie Henderson
The character of Mrs. Annie Henderson epitomizes the archetype of a “mother” in the novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “Momma”, as she is aptly referred to by her granddaughter Maya, protects, provides for, and bestows spiritual guidance to her grandchildren.
I could not read the memoir without being struck by the overt irony of “Momma’s’ character. She is not their Momma, yet she is far more of a mother than anyone could ever be. When Maya and Bailey Jr. are unable to be cared for by their own mother Vivian, Momma steps in to protect them. She gives them shelter and a loving and safe home. She secures a new home for them, thousands of miles away from their parents.
Annie Henderson also is a provider. She is the breadwinner and provides for the financial needs of the children, without the assistance of a husband. Although the story references her previous marriages, Momma is a single mother (grandmother) who owns the only general store for miles around. She assists her black community by providing them with the store goods they need for their own homes, and the credit they require if they cannot pay. She asks no questions and passes no judgments. Maya observes her “Momma” with awe and reverence.
Like any good mother, Momma demands respect from Maya, and instils the value of manners, an education, and a passion to hope in equality. She does not allow Maya or Bailey to be destroyed by the brutal southern racist environment.
Maya learns from her Momma by watching her endure racial discrimination and oppression. This allows Maya to develop the tools she will need in her own life; a life that will be a very difficult journey. When the three “poor white trash” girls visit the Henderson store and humiliate and disrespect Momma, Maya watches with anger. In contrast, Momma does not teach anger, she teaches “the love of God”. Rather than respond with defiance, Momma simply calls upon her religious beliefs and sings a spiritual song. Maya witnesses the horrific disrespect of the behavior of “white girls” and she remembered her Momma’s words, “You be a good girl now. You hear? Don’t you make people thing I didn’t raise you right. (Angelou 57). She learns that even in the face of oppression, there can come freedom.
Maya says that Momma’s world “was bordered on all sides with work, duty, religion, and her place” (57). Momma guides Maya in the ways of the Lord. She instills faith in her and establishes the daily routine of prayer. She takes Maya to church each Sunday and she teaches Maya traditional African-American spiritual hymns. The phrase “God is love” (57) was a repeated mantra of Momma Henderson. She guided Maya and Bailey toward God’s presence and she helped to establish a strong faith in Maya.
Momma provides care and love for her own disabled son Willie. One night when the Klan are searching for a “crazy Negro” who “messed with a white woman” (16) Momma quickly hides Willie in a bin of vegetables and instructs him to stay there until she can ensure his safety.
Sadly, Momma knows when it is time to move Maya and Bailey away from Stamps, and she does so after Bailey witnessed the retrieval of a black man’s body from a local pond. She is selfless in her love for the children and knows when it is time for them to go. Momma Henderson is the quintessential archetype of a mother. She is a mother, a grandmother, and a community presence which calms “folks” and brings them closer to the healing power of God.
Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1970. Print.