Critical Essays Women in the Maya Character's Life


The montage of female role models in Maya's life significantly influences her growth and emotional well-being. From early times, she relies on the stiff, unyielding sanctimony and firm discipline of Momma Henderson, who insists on clean feet, respectful words, unquestioning obedience, and hard work. Unable to voice her love and devotion to Bailey and Maya, Momma settles for wholehearted attention to their needs, including home cooking, homilies, dental care, supervised homework, and tailored hand-me-downs or new garments sewn from her chest of fabrics kept safe with mothballs. When the time comes to restore the children to their parents, Momma stoically makes the decision, barters for rail tickets, and accompanies Maya to Los Angeles, where Vivian reassumes the role of mother long enough to get Momma and Maya settled, then returns to San Francisco. Six months later, with no more sentiment than she expressed in Stamps, Momma takes her leave, seemingly content that she has done her best for her youngest grandchild.

Moved to Oakland by Vivian, Maya passes into her mother's wide-open world, where an impromptu party at 2:30 a.m. seems in character with the urbane and much beloved woman who dances the Suzy Q, Time Step, and Snake Hips, bakes biscuits, swears, plays pinochle and poker for a living, and, when the occasion arises, conceals a .32 pistol in her skirt pocket for later use. Disdainfully proud and honest about her lifestyle, Vivian declares that she "wouldn't bust suds for anybody nor be anyone's kitchen bitch." Her yearning for fun and her intense loyalty to the children from whom she lived apart for nearly a decade endear her to Bailey and Maya, who attach no wrong to the spirited Mother Dear, the foil of their faithful, predictable Momma.

On the edge of the parental motif, Grandmother Baxter, less of a role model, yet not without influence on Maya, struts her tyranny over precinct favorites during her tenure in St. Louis. After Maya's testimony against the villainous Mr. Freeman, Grandmother Baxter declares the matter at an end by banishing "that evil man's name from her house. Ten years later, sharing a bed with Maya in Oakland and soothing her nighttime discomfort with deep draws on her "Willies," the cigarettes that deaden her irritated throat with nicotine, she recedes into widowhood and a reduced role in her granddaughter's life.

While coping with the cosmopolitan city of San Francisco, Maya encounters Miss Kirwin, whose professionalism mirrors the aristocratic splendor of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, the Stamps gentlewoman who lifts Maya from her self-imposed sentence of silence by acknowledging her individuality and promise. A maidenly professional, Miss Kirwin, equally interested in developing Maya's considerable intellectual gifts, treats her fairly in the one-sided racial cosmos of George Washington High. Bypassing textbooks, she opens the minds of her pupils to the importance of timely issues and events, leading Maya to an appreciation of "the San Francisco papers, Time magazine, Life and everything else available to me." In gratitude for the "clean slate" that Miss Kirwin extends to her classes, Maya responds to creative stimulus and returns in later years for visits to the teacher who made a strong, positive impression on her.

Overall, the influence of strong, resolute women permeates Maya's childhood and provides the role models she needs to achieve a self-sustaining dignity. Typical of her hard-headed individualism, however, she exercises an eclecticism over her experiences, editing out the stern hyper-piety of Momma, the sinister power of Grandmother Baxter, the prim scholarship of Mrs. Flowers and Miss Kirwin, and the hedonism and irresponsibility of Mother Dear. Becoming her own woman, Maya demonstrates a hybrid mix of qualities nurtured from childhood and hardened by the struggle. Studying the three-week-old son who mystifies and charms her, she prepares to activate the accrued wisdom that black womanhood has offered.