I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou Discussion questions 1. The memoir opens with a provocative refrain: “What you looking at me for? I didn't come to stay.” What does this passage says about Marguerite’s sense of herself? How does she feel about her place in the world? How does she keep her identity intact? 2. Why does Angelou include the church scene in which Marguerite cannot remember the poem she is reciting, fleeing the church and accidentally urinating outside, as an introduction to the book? Why does she lead with this, and how does this scene tie in with the story as a whole? 3. Marguerite is called by many names throughout the narrative: Sister, Margaret, Ritie, and Mya/Maya. In a pivotal scene Viola Cullinan, a white woman for whom she is working, refers to her as “Mary.” What is the significance of this scene? How does Marguerite react? Are her actions justified? Why or why not? 4. Does Marguerite’s sense of displacement make her susceptible to Mr. Freeman’s sexual advances? How does the rape and Mr. Freeman’s death influence her throughout the rest of the book? Why does she refrain from speaking afterwards? What allows her to find her voice again? 5. Where does the title of the book come from and why is it significant? Where do we find the image of the caged bird applied in the story both literally and figuratively? What is the significance of the title as it relates to Marguerite’s self-imposed muteness? 6. What impact does literature have on Marguerite and Bailey, her brother? Where does the story emphasize its effects? 7. What is the significance of the sermon delivered at the annual revival, which focuses on First Corinthians 13 and its admonition, “Even if I have the tongue of men and of angels and have not charity, I am as nothing.”? Why is Matthew 25 (in which God admonishes followers that what they do to the least of his people, they do to him) also a featured text? What does the black Southern church represent for its members? 8. What means of resistance against racism does Angelou depict? How did the opportunities for resistance for rural southern blacks differ from those available to African Americans in San Francisco? How might they be attributed to a generational difference? 9. Upon seeing her mother, Vivian, again after years of separation, Marguerite describes her as “a hurricane in its perfect power.” What kind of relationship does she have with her mother? How does it compare to her relationship with her grandmother, “Momma”? What is Bailey’s relationship with his “Mother Dear”? 10. How does Marguerite describe her father? How do her relationships with Big Bailey (her father) and Daddy Clidell (her stepfather) differ? 11. How does I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings address racial stereotypes? What is Marguerite’s view of “whitefolk” and how do white people perceive African Americans? What is the relationship between African Americans and the Japanese inhabitants of San Francisco when Marguerite and Bailey move there at the beginning of World War II? What does the book say about racism and prejudice? 12. Daddy Clidell introduces Marguerite to con men and she says that “the needs of a society determine its ethics.” What does she means by this? Is she correct? Why or why not? 13. The author writes, “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.” What do you make of the author’s portrayal of race? How do Marguerite and her family cope with the racial tension that permeates their lives? 14. Which characters serve as positive role models for Marguerite? How does she come to her conclusions about the strength of black women? 15. What kind of bond do Marguerite and Bailey share? How does it change over the course of the book? 16. How does Angelou’s story reflect the social conventions and concerns of the time it was published, in 1969? Does it also reflect today’s social conventions and concerns? How? 17. Is Marguerite a reliable narrator? Is the story 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? To what extent does the author’s memory seem to distort her narrative? 18. Is the book is an autobiography or autobiographical fiction? 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? How would the significance of the work be different if it were fictional? 19. Throughout the book, Marguerite struggles with feelings that she is “bad” and “sinful,” as her thoughts echo the admonitions of her strict religious upbringing. By the end of the memoir, what has she learned about morality? How does the Marguerite at the conclusion of the story compare to the young child at the start? How has she changed and why? About the author Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. The name Maya was given to her by her older brother, Bailey Jr., who referred to her as “my-a-sister.” After her parents divorced when she was three and her brother was four, they resided with their paternal grandmother and their uncle in Stamps, Arkansas until they were teenagers, with the exception of a year spent in St. Louis with their mother and her family. At 14 she and her brother moved to San Francisco to live with their mother and her husband. Angelou’s varied career included stints as a dancer, singer, actress, and journalist, and she lived in Egypt and Ghana during the early 1960s. During that decade she also served as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and assisted Malcolm X in his work. Angelou’s books include seven autobiographical works: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013). She was convinced to tell her story by the author James Baldwin, whom she met after joining the Harlem Writers Guild in the 1950s. She also worked on theatrical and film 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. She published 18 volumes of poetry, three books of personal essays, two cookbooks, seven children’s books, and wrote, adapted, or directed seven plays. Among her theatrical credits she appeared in Porgy and Bess and Mother Courage, and had a role in the TV miniseries Roots. She directed the 1998 movie Down in the Delta. Angelou’s 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 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and was the recipient of countless honorary degrees. Angelou had a son, Guy Johnson (now a poet and novelist), in 1945. She married electrician, former sailor, and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos in 1951 (they divorced in 1954) and carpenter Paul du Feu in 1973 (they divorced in 1981). In the early 1960s she had a relationship with the South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make. She died on May 28, 2014.
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