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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.
 
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
 
Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.
 
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.”—James Baldwin


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Prologue

"What you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay . . ."

I hadn't so much forgot as I couldn't bring myself to remember. Other things were more important.

"What you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay . . ."

Whether I could remember the rest of the poem or not was immaterial. The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists, and the sooner they accepted it the quicker I could let my hands open and the air would cool my palms.

"What you looking at me for . . . ?"

The children's section of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was wiggling and giggling over my well-known forgetfulness.

The dress I wore was lavender taffeta, and each time I breathed it rustled, and now that I was sucking in air to breathe out shame it sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses.

As I'd watched Momma put ruffles on the hem and cute little tucks around the waist, I knew that once I put it on I'd look like a movie star. (It was silk and that made up for the awful color.) I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody's dream of what was right with the world. Hanging softly over the black Singer sewing machine, it looked like magic, and when people saw me wearing it they were going to run up to me and say, "Marguerite [sometimes it was 'dear Marguerite'], forgive us, please, we didn't know who you were," and I would answer generously, "No, you couldn't have known. Of course I forgive you."

Just thinking about it made me go around with angel's dust sprinkled over my face for days. But Easter's early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman's once-was-purple throwaway. It was old-lady-long too, but it didn't hide my skinny legs, which had been greased with Blue Seal Vaseline and powdered with the Arkansas red clay. The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church was looking at my skinny legs.

Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn't let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about "my daddy must of been a Chinaman" (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs' tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.

"What you looking ..." The minister's wife leaned toward me, her long yellow face full of sorry. She whispered, "I just come to tell you, it's Easter Day." I repeated, jamming the words together, "Ijustcometotellyouit'sEasterDay," as low as possible. The giggles hung in the air like melting clouds that were waiting to rain on me. I held up two fingers, close to my chest, which meant that I had to go to the toilet, and tiptoed toward the rear of the church. Dimly, somewhere over my head, I heard ladies saying, "Lord bless the child," and "Praise God." My head was up and my eyes were open, but I didn't see anything. Halfway down the aisle, the church exploded with "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" and I tripped over a foot stuck out from the children's pew. I stumbled and started to say something, or maybe to scream, but a green persimmon, or it could have been a lemon, caught me between the legs and squeezed. I tasted the sour on my tongue and felt it in the back of my mouth. Then before I reached the door, the sting was burning down my legs and into my Sunday socks. I tried to hold, to squeeze it back, to keep it from speeding, but when I reached the church porch I knew I'd have to let it go, or it would probably run right back up to my head and my poor head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would roll all over the place. So I ran down into the yard and let it go. I ran, peeing and crying, not toward the toilet out back but to our house. I'd get a whipping for it, to be sure, and the nasty children would have something new to tease me about. I laughed anyway, partially for the sweet release; still, the greater joy came not only from being liberated from the silly church but from the knowledge that I wouldn't die from a busted head.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.

It is an unnecessary insult.


Chapter 1

When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed--"To Whom It May Concern"--that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.

Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. A porter had been charged with our welfare--he got off the train the next day in Arizona--and our tickets were pinned to my brother's inside coat pocket.

I don't remember much of the trip, but after we reached the segregated southern part of the journey, things must have looked up. Negro passengers, who always traveled with loaded lunch boxes, felt sorry for "the poor little motherless darlings" and plied us with cold fried chicken and potato salad.

Years later I discovered that the United States had been crossed thousands of times by frightened Black children traveling alone to their newly affluent parents in Northern cities, or back to grandmothers in Southern towns when the urban North reneged on its economic promises.

The town reacted to us as its inhabitants had reacted to all things new before our coming. It regarded us a while without curiosity but with caution, and after we were seen to be harmless (and children) it closed in around us, as a real mother embraces a stranger's child. Warmly, but not too familiarly.

We lived with our grandmother and uncle in the rear of the Store (it was always spoken of with a capital s), which she had owned some twenty-five years.

Early in the century, Momma (we soon stopped calling her Grandmother) sold lunches to the sawmen in the lumberyard (east Stamps) and the seedmen at the cotton gin (west Stamps). Her crisp meat pies and cool lemonade, when joined to her miraculous ability to be in two places at the same time, assured her business success. From being a mobile lunch counter, she set up a stand between the two points of fiscal interest and supplied the workers' needs for a few years. Then she had the Store built in the heart of the Negro area. Over the years it became the lay center of activities in town. On Saturdays, barbers sat their customers in the shade on the porch of the Store, and troubadours on their ceaseless crawlings through the South leaned across its benches and sang their sad songs of The Brazos while they played juice harps and cigarbox guitars.

The formal name of the Store was the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store. Customers could find food staples, a good variety of colored thread, mash for hogs, corn for chickens, coal oil for lamps, light bulbs for the wealthy, shoestrings, hair dressing, balloons, and flower seeds. Anything not visible had only to be ordered.

Until we became familiar enough to belong to the Store and it to us, we were locked up in a Fun House of Things where the attendant had gone home for life.


Each year I watched the field across from the Store turn caterpillar green, then gradually frosty white. I knew exactly how long it would be before the big wagons would pull into the front yard and load on the cotton pickers at daybreak to carry them to the remains of slavery's plantations.

During the picking season my grandmother would get out of bed at four o'clock (she never used an alarm clock) and creak down to her knees and chant in a sleep-filled voice, "Our Father, thank you for letting me see this New Day. Thank you that you didn't allow the bed I lay on last night to be my cooling board, nor my blanket my winding sheet. Guide my feet this day along the straight and narrow, and help me to put a bridle on my tongue. Bless this house, and everybody in it. Thank you, in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen."

Before she had quite arisen, she called our names and issued orders, and pushed her large feet into homemade slippers and across the bare Iye-washed wooden floor to light the coal-oil lamp.

The lamplight in the Store gave a soft make-believe feeling to our world which made me want to whisper and walk about on tiptoe. The odors of onions and oranges and kerosene had been mixing all night and wouldn't be disturbed until the wooded slat was removed from the door and the early morning air forced its way in with the bodies of people who had walked miles to reach the pickup place.

"Sister, I'll have two cans of sardines."

"I'm gonna work so fast today I'm gonna make you look like you standing still."

"Lemme have a hunk uh cheese and some sody crackers."

"Just gimme a couple them fat peanut paddies." That would be from a picker who was taking his lunch. The greasy brown paper sack was stuck behind the bib of his overalls. He'd use the candy as a snack before the noon sun called the workers to rest.

In those tender mornings the Store was full of laughing, joking, boasting and bragging. One man was going to pick two hundred pounds of cotton, and another three hundred. Even the children were promising to bring home fo' bits and six bits.

The champion picker of the day before was the hero of the dawn. If he prophesied that the cotton in today's field was going to be sparse and stick to the bolls like glue, every listener would grunt a hearty agreement.

The sound of the empty cotton sacks dragging over the floor and the murmurs of waking people were sliced by the cash register as we rang up the five-cent sales.

If the morning sounds and smells were touched with the supernatural, the late afternoon had all the features of the normal Arkansas life. In the dying sunlight the people dragged, rather than their empty cotton sacks.

Brought back to the Store, the pickers would step out of the backs of trucks and fold down, dirt-disappointed, to the ground. No matter how much they had picked' it wasn't enough. Their wages wouldn't even get them out of debt to my grandmother, not to mention the staggering bill that waited on them at the white commissary downtown.

The sounds of the new morning had been replaced with grumbles about cheating houses, weighted scales, snakes, skimpy cotton and dusty rows. In later years I was to confront the stereotyped picture of gay song-singing cotton pickers with such inordinate rage that I was told even by fellow Blacks that my paranoia was embarrassing. But I had seen the fingers cut by the mean little cotton bolls, and I had witnessed the backs and shoulders and arms and legs resisting any further demands.

Some of the workers would leave their sacks at the Store to be picked up the following morning, but a few had to take them home for repairs. I winced to picture them sewing the coarse material under a coal-oil lamp with fingers stiffening from the day's work. In too few hours they would have to walk back to Sister Henderson's Store, get vittles and load, again, onto the trucks. Then they would face another day of trying to earn enough for the whole year with the heavy knowledge that they were going to end the season as they started it. Without the money or credit necessary to sustain a family for three months. In cotton-picking time the late afternoons revealed the harshness of Black Southern life, which in the early morning had been softened by nature's blessing of grogginess, forgetfulness and the soft lamplight.
Maya Angelou

About Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou - I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Photo © Dwight Carter

Maya Angelou was raised in Stamps, Arkansas. In addition to her bestselling autobiographies, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Heart of a Woman, she wrote numerous volumes of poetry, among them Phenomenal Woman, And Still I Rise, On the Pulse of Morning, and Mother. Maya Angelou died in 2014.
Praise | Awards

Praise

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.”—James Baldwin


From the Hardcover edition.

Awards

NOMINEE 2012 Audie Awards
Reader's Guide|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

Memoirist, novelist, poet, and dramatist, Maya Angelou is one of the best-loved writers of our time. She is widely acclaimed for her searing, inspiring writings--and she has been praised for confronting both the racial and sexual pressures on black women, and for infusing her work with a perspective on larger social and political movements, including civil rights.
In the volumes of her bestselling personal story--one of the most remarkable narratives ever shared--Maya Angelou writes about the struggles and triumphs of her extraordinary life with candor, humor, poignancy, and grace. These include:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The classic autobiography of her young years.
Gather Together In My Name

The coming-of-age story of her struggle for survival as a young unwed mother.
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas

The saga of her show business career, her failed marriage, and her early motherhood.
The Heart of a Woman

The turbulent story of her emergence as a writer and a political activist.
Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now

Her exhilarating collection of wisdom, spirituality, and life lessons.

About the Author

On April 4, 1928, Maya Angelou was born Marguerita Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents soon divorced and she was sent to live with her grandmother in rural Arkansas, where she spent most of her early childhood. During a visit to St. Louis when she was eight years old, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, whom her uncles subsequently killed. Angelou did not speak for some years after. In 1940, Angelou moved to San Francisco with her mother. While attending high school, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son in 1945, just after receiving her diploma. To support her child and herself, she worked several odd jobs. While appearing as a dancer in a cabaret, she changed her name to Angelou. Her experience there led to an acting and singing career and she joined a cast performing "Porgy and Bess" throughout Europe. When she was thirty, Angelou moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met James Baldwin. She became involved in the civil rights movement, serving as the northern coordinator for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1959 to 1960. She later moved to Egypt, where she edited an English-language newspaper, and then to Ghana, working as a writer and editor. In 1970, Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. An account of her childhood up to the birth of her son, it is her most critically-acclaimed work and was nominated for a National Book Award. She went on to write Gather Together in My Name, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, and Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. Her acclaimed works of poetry include Maya Angelou: Poems and I Shall Not Be Moved. In film and television, Angelou wrote the original screenplay and musical score for the film "Georgia, Georgia," and wrote and produced a ten-part television series on African traditions in American life, and participated as guest interviewer for the Public Broadcasting System program "Assignment America." One of the few women members of the Directors Guild, she is the author of the television screenplays I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Sisters. In January 1993, Maya Angelou became the first woman and the first African-American to read her work at a presidential inauguration. Her inaugural poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" celebrates the diversity of the American and world communities and calls on them to work together to create a better future. She currently lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she is Reynolds Professor at Wake Forest University.


From the Paperback edition.

Discussion Guides

1. Maya Angelou begins her autobiography with a moment of public humiliation in church. Why do you think she chose this scene in particular? Do themes in this scene reappear throughout the memoir?

2. To Marguerite, her mother seems alternately charming, elusive, unreliable and strong. Which episodes in the novel illuminate her character? Do you think she was a good mother?

3. Mrs. Flowers “encouraged [Marguerite] to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations” (100). What are some of the maxims that Angelou remembers hearing from Momma and Mother? Did any of these maxims strike a particular chord with you? Are there examples of “mother wit” that you remember from your own childhood, or pass on to those around you?

4. Angelou describes Marguerite as “superstitious” (166). Can you find some examples of Marguerite’s superstition?

5. How does Angelou describe her molestation and later her rape at the hands of Mr. Freeman? Were you surprised by her emotions? Was this terrible experience the defining moment of the novel or of Angelou’s childhood? Why or why not?

6. “Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being ‘called out of his name’” (109), and when Mrs. Cullinan renames her “Mary,” she exacts her revenge. Can you think of other examples of naming and renaming in the book? What do you think it means to be “called out of [one’s] name”?

7. What did you think of the relationship between Glory and Mrs. Cullinan?

8. “I couldn’t force myself to think of them as people,” (26) Angelou writes of the whites in segregated Stamps, Arkansas. Does this change over the course of the novel?

9. How is Marguerite’s identity as a Black woman variously shaped by her own and others’ interactions with whites, including the “powhitetrash children” (28), middle class whites like Mrs. Cullinan and the sheriff, and Northern whites such as the employees of the Market Street Railway Company? Do you think that Marguerite is more powerfully affected by her own interactions or by the interactions she observes?

10. As the granddaughter of a comparatively poor businesswoman, Marguerite’s understanding of the world is shaped as much by class experience as by race. Can you think of some examples of class distinctions or inversions in the novel?

11. What are some of the communities that welcome Marguerite during her childhood? Which communities nurture her successfully? Which are less successful?

12. “He was my first white love,” (13) Angelou says of Shakespeare, but most of her teachers are Black. How does Angelou describe her education, both formal and informal? What lessons does she learn from those around her?

13. “We survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets,” (184) Angelou says of Black people. Do you think that this is true of all cultures?

14. The title is a reference to a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Why do you think that Angelou chose this title?

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

Please click on the PDF link below to download the Teacher's Guide.


As with all great works of literature, there are some challenges associated with the use of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in the classroom. Along with classic books such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Angelou’s work has drawn attention from critics advocating censorship, who claim that it is too graphic for student use. Angelou’s unguarded depiction of rape and sexual abuse, and her treatment of topics such as racism and teenage pregnancy, placed the work at the top of the American Library Association’s list of banned books, where it still remains today. Although this presents some obstacles for teachers, the attempted censorship of the book only serves to illuminate its most important themes: namely, the power of literature and the power of our own voices, as well as the greater theme of freedom in all of its varieties, and the struggles we undertake in order to preserve it.
 
Teachers who wish to use I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in their classroom should possess a solid awareness of the subject matter it contains. They should also be prepared to confront the challenging issues the book presents by engaging students in an active examination of these issues, rather than downplaying the book’s controversial attributes. Taking this approach in the classroom can yield tremendous rewards. An exploration of such dynamic topics can re-invigorate the classroom by inviting students to participate in an active form of learning. In opening up these topics for discussion, students do more than witness someone else’s story; they engage in a process of reflection, formulating and sharing their own thoughts. They learn to value their story and to develop and find confidence in their own voices. Throughout I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we witness Maya and her brother reading voraciously, and through their interaction with literature, they are educated and empowered. Angelou also makes note of the tremendous influence of Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who acts as a mentor not only by sharing books, but by encouraging a young Angelou to give voice to her ideas. With the same principles of mentoring applied in the classroom, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings can have a similar effect on your students, inspiring them to find their own voices.
 
Finally, while the book certainly possesses a distinct sense of time and place throughout, teachers (who will no doubt note the book’s historical and cultural significance) should resist the urge to reduce their lesson to a study of the book from a purely historical perspective. The work certainly has many cultural and historical merits, but the primary challenge for teachers today lies in helping students recognize how the book applies to their own lives. Challenge them to ask: Why has this book had such a lasting impact? What significance does I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings hold for me? In fact, these are questions which should not only be asked in consideration of Angelou’s works, but in our confrontation with all works of literature. How does literature reflect, challenge, or define notions of our identity, our culture, our history, and our philosophies? Encouraging this line of questioning will help your students truly connect with the book, allowing the work to enter their lives in a way they might not have expected.
 
ABOUT THE BOOK
 
In 1969, Random House published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical work of literature which instantly catapulted its author, Maya Angelou, to fame. The book, which told the story of the first 17 years of Angelou’s life, broke records for the unprecedented time it spent on the New York Times bestseller list, and cemented its place in literary his- tory by challenging stale conventions attributed to the genres of memoir and autobiography. It was the first and most successful of six autobiographical works written by Angelou, honored with a National Book Award nomination in 1970, and countless accolades throughout the decades that followed. The book reveals the story of Angelou’s development from a child into a mother at age 17, and presents an unrestrained look at the many challenges she faced during that time. Within the dynamic retelling of the events of Angelou’s own childhood lies a candid exploration of the issues facing American youth. Although I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was written 40 years ago, it remains fresh and relevant for today’s readers with Angelou’s story giving voice to universal concerns. The book speaks about contemporary issues with which many students continue to be confronted today: the effects of emotional, sexual, and intellectual development; the complexity of familial relationships, the struggle to overcome racism and prejudice in its various forms; and the journey towards knowing one’s self. Remarkably, even while addressing topics of such enormous significance, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remains accessible and captivating, a pleasurable read. This winning combination of features, which has propelled the book’s success in both the popular and literary realm, has made it a natural candidate for use in the classroom and accordingly, the text has been adopted for use in high schools, colleges, and universities around the world.
 
One of the book’s greatest accomplishments has been its ability to redefine and refresh the genre of autobiography, a particular point of interest for scholars and critics. By acting as both narrator and protagonist, Angelou is able to generate a memoir with the feel of a novel, transforming her story into something that extends beyond herself. She heightens this feeling by employing fictional devices such as dialogue, character development, unified themes, and motifs. Today, the question of how autobiography can be defined has transcended the literary realm, finding its way into other venues as well. It is a significant and timely question, which pertains not only to the definition or re-definition of literary genres, but which ultimately leads us to a consideration of identity and truth.
 
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a
luminous dignity.” —James Baldwin
 
“A beautiful book—an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time...Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and
she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative.” —Kirkus Reviews
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
 
MAYA ANGELOU was a poet, autobiographer, and activist, among other roles throughout her career. She was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4th, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. The name Maya was given to her by her older brother, Bailey Jr., who referred to her in his youth as “my-a-sister,” a moniker which was later shortened to “Maya.” After her parents divorced, Maya and her brother resided with their paternal grandmother and crippled uncle in Stamps, Arkansas, where they bore witness to the racism and prejudice that plagued the American South. Angelou turned to literature at an early age, studying a wide range of books which inspired her to begin writing works of her own. In addition to the composition of many volumes of poetry, Angelou chronicled her life in a series of six autobiographical works, which included her most lauded and controversial work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was convinced to tell her story by the author James Baldwin, whom she met after joining the Harlem Writers Guild in the 1950s. Angelou allowed her voice to be heard not only in her writing, but also through her political and social activism. During the 1960s, Angelou served as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She also assisted Malcolm X in his work and was deeply affected by the subsequent assassinations of both men. In addition to her work in literature and poetry, and her involvement in social activism, Angelou was also engaged in theater, film, and music. She worked on adaptations, produced, directed, wrote, and composed musical scores. She earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play Look Away, and three Grammy Awards for her spoken word albums. Angelou’s literary works also garnered significant attention and praise. Her 1971 volume of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’Fore I Diiie was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993, she recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Angelou has served on two presidential committees. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and was the recipient of countless honorary degrees. Maya Angelou passed away on May 28th, 2014, at the age of 86.
 
Author Website: www.mayaangelou.com
 
TEACHING IDEAS
 
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a versatile text which can be utilized in a variety of class- room settings. If you are considering the book for use in literature or English classes, you might begin by exploring genre. The work is often identified as autobiography or autobiographical fiction, with many scholars and critics proposing that there is a distinction between the two. Consider if there is a difference between memoir and autobiographical fiction. What about semi-autobiographical fiction or works which include the “based on a true story” disclaimer? Alternatively, you might wish to discuss the critical reception of the book. For instance, despite the book’s many merits, the work has also been criticized for its aesthetic characteristics. Discuss why Angelou’s work has received this response and allow your students to present their own conclusions. In order to answer these questions, it will be helpful to break the book into its formal elements—structure, plot, narration and voice, characters, setting, etc.—and analyze them. Discuss the style of the book. How does it relate to Angelou’s role as poet? Finally, remember that while the book can certainly serve as your primary text, it can also be used profitably in conjunction with other texts. Consider the work as a coming- of-age story or bildungsroman, or examine the book within the context of Southern literature.
 
Alternatively, you might choose to address the historical and cultural context of the work by studying its role as a social device or impetus for cultural change. If you take this approach, you may wish to look at the book within a tradition of American protest literature. This approach might be adopted in literature classes, but would also be a fitting and dynamic approach for history students, or those studying the American South in particular. Consider how the work addresses racism and identity. Explain the significance of scenes such as the Joe Louis fight and the scene where readers find Uncle Willie hiding in a potato bin. How do these scenes tie in to larger historical and cultural issues?
 
Those interested in teaching the text from a sociological standpoint might wish to consider how the various groups of people in the story relate to and identify with one another, or how they fail to do so. How do the different races interact? Does Angelou want us to form judgments about races as single entities? Or is there something else that she is getting at? How do the characters of varying generations interact? Finally, what do we learn about social class? In each of these instances, you would do well to focus primarily on character. Are the characters in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings flat characters or round characters? Do the characters serve a function beyond themselves, symbolizing something greater?
 
The book is also a valuable resource for those studying psychology and human development. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers tough issues such as the effects of rape and the trauma resulting from abuse; sexual development and gender issues; identity; and the impact of relationships between family members, friends, teachers, and students.
 
DISCUSSION AND WRITING
 
1. The text presents us with many variations of Maya’s name, culminating in a pivotal scene wherein Mrs. Viola Cullinan refers to Angelou as “Mary,” instead of “Marguerite.” What is the significance of this scene? How does Maya react? Are her actions justified? Explain.
2. Where does the title of the book come from and why is it significant? Where do we find this image of the caged bird applied in the story both literally and figuratively?
3. Following her rape, Marguerite becomes silent. Why does she  refrain rom speaking? What allows her to find her voice again?
4. What impact does literature have on Maya and her brother? Where in the story do we witness its effects?
5. Analyze the style of the book. Consider its structure as a whole, as well as the sentence structure and Angelou’s use of metaphor and simile. How does the style of the book relate to Angelou’s role as poet? Is the style characteristic of other autobiographical works? Why or why not? How does this affect our response to the story?
6. Why does Angelou devote an entire chapter to the Joe Louis fight? How do the characters in the book react to the fight? Why is it significant? What do we learn from this scene?
7. Is Maya’s view always accurate? Is she a reliable narrator? Why or why not? Consider the perspective of the story. Is it told solely through the eyes of the young Marguerite? Or is an older, wiser Angelou also present in the book? How does the narration affect our reception of the text?
8. How does Angelou’s own story reflect the social conventions and concerns of the day? Does it also reflect today’s social conventions and concerns? Explain.
9. Consider the role of truth in literature. Is it fair to say that the book is an autobiography, or is autobiographical fiction a more accurate categorization? What defines a work as autobiography and what distinguishes a work as fiction? Does Angelou’s use of literary devices such as dialogue, characterization, and cohesive themes change the categorization of the book?
10. Analyze Maya’s development through- out the story. How does the Maya at the conclusion of the story compare to the young Marguerite that we meet at the start? How has she changed? To what can these changes be attributed?
11. Why does Angelou include the opening church scene as an introduction to the book? Why would she choose to lead with this, and how does this scene tie in with the story as a whole?
12. Consider the structure of the book. Why do you think that Angelou chose to divide the book into so many chapters? Are the chapters lengthy or concise? How might the structure of the book tie in with common themes of the text such as memory?
13. Is Maya’s portrayal of her parents accurate or should we be wary of it? Consider her descriptions of them and her reactions to both parents.
14. How does I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings address racial stereotypes? What is Maya’s view of “whitefolk” and how do the so-called “whitefolk” perceive African Americans? What do we learn about racism and prejudice?
15. In Chapter 23, Maya says “we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets.” What does she mean by this? What does it say about the importance of literature?
16. In Chapter 27, what is the relationship between African Americans and the Japanese inhabitants of the city? What does Angelou attribute this to?
17. In Chapter 29, Daddy Clidell introduces Maya to con men. Maya says that “the needs of a society determine its ethics.” What do you think she means by this? Do you feel that she is correct? Discuss.
18. What are some of the themes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? How can we identify them as such? How do these themes unify the text and help to create a cohesive whole?
 
BEYOND THE BOOK (SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES)
 
1. Discuss an event that you consider to have been a critical part of your growth and development. How has your perception or understanding of this event changed (or remained the same) as you have grown older? How did this event help to define who you are?
2. In 2008, Angelou’s family history was explored on the PBS series African American Lives 2. Explore your own family history. Create a work (a story, a video, a piece of art, etc.) which documents this history.
3. Throughout the story Angelou references many works of literature which have inspired her. Does I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings share anything in common with these works of literature? Are we able to see their direct influence in her own work? For instance, do the characters in Angelou’s story and the stories she read as a youth share a similar fate or confront common obstacles? Does the subject matter of the work compare? Or the form and style? Choose one work and analyze its relation to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
4. Consider the book within the framework of the history of banned books. Why has this book been the subject of censorship? How does it compare to other banned texts? Consult the American Library Association website at www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/ bannedbooksweek/bannedbooksweek. cfm for suggested projects associated with Banned Books Week. How does Angelou’s book confront issues of voice, freedom, and censorship?
5. Read Angelou’s original poem, “Those Who Burn Books,” written for Random House’s RHI magazine at www.randomhouse.com/highschool/ rhi_magazine/pdf3/Angelou.pdf. What can be determined about the author’s position on the banning of books? What does Angelou suggest censors are fearful of? Why would censors be fearful of allowing students to read about these issues? What other authors and works of literature does Angelou reference in the poem, and what do these works share in common?
 
TOPICS FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION
 
• Censorship • Freedom • Identity • Joe Louis • Ku Klux Klan • Pregnancy • Racism • Rape •Segregation
 
OTHER BOOKS BY MAYA ANGELOU
 
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970)
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water’Fore I Diiie (1971)
Gather Together in My Name (1974)
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975)
Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976)
And Still I Rise (1978)
The Heart of a Woman (1981)
“Why I Moved Back to the South” (1982)
Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing (1983)
All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986)
“My Grandson, Home at Last” (1986)
Poems: Maya Angelou (1986)
Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987)
I Shall Not Be Moved (1990)
“On the Pulse of the Morning” (1993)
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993)
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994)
“A Brave and Startling Truth” (1995)
Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997)
Phenomenal Women (2000)
A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002)
“Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem” (2005)
“Mother: A Cradle to Hold Me” (2006)
“Celebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer” (2006)
Letter to My Daughter (2008)
 
OTHER BOOKS OF INTEREST
 
The following list contains suggested works which can be studied profitably alongside I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Included are works which share similarities in formal characteristics such as style, character, and plot, as well as works which share a historical and cultural significance. The list also references some of the works known to have influenced Angelou, which she mentions in the book.
 
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar
The Collected Works of Shakespeare including The Rape of Lucrece
The Color Purple, Alice Walker
Complete Tales of Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, Jessie Redmon Fauset
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
The writings of W. E. B. Du Bois
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
 
 
ABOUT THIS GUIDE’S WRITER
 
This guide was produced by JENNIFER BANACH, a writer from Connecticut. A member of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, Banach has written on a wide range of topics from Romanticism to contemporary literature for publishers such as Random House, EBSCO, and Oxford University Press. She was the Contributing Editor for Bloom’s Guides: The Glass Menagerie and Bloom’s Guides: Heart of Darkness, edited by Harold Bloom for Facts on File, Inc., and the author of How to Write about Tennessee Williams. Currently, Banach is at work on How to Write about Arthur Miller and How to Write about Kurt Vonnegut, also to be edited by Harold Bloom for Facts on File, Inc., and Understanding Norman Mailer for the University of South Carolina Press.
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