I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Book Cover

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

Autobiographical account of a young girl living in the South – in Stamps, Arkansas, facing poverty, racial discrimination and sexual abuse.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

A story which is heart-breaking, inspiring and shines a light on injustice. Maya Angelou’s first autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings traverses Great Depression America, recounting a young girl’s life, split between family members and contrasting societies, from her time in the poor South with her Grandma to the class system of her mother’s family. Angelou’s ability to (at times) add humour and delight through her writing gives rise to a childlike wonder that is fitting with the child at the centre of the book. Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson, takes us from a period of comfort with her Grandma ‘Momma’ and Uncle Willy, to a less comfortable time spent with her mother, where she appears neglected and is the victim of rape by her mother’s partner. Having confessed the man’s actions, he is later found beaten to death and Maya, believing it to be the result of her words, remains mute. Her mother, unable to woo her from her mutism, sends her back to live with her Grandma and Maya’s journey continues.

A book that has been influential since its publication, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings holds meaning for many readers. Combining comfort and family with prejudice and abuse, reading it is a mix of emotions. Parts of the book make it a difficult read due to the topics it covers, but others are vibrant and wholesome as Maya delights at revealing small perks in her life, from trying new foods or being subjected to new people from all walks of life. Maya is able to capture the essence of life and remains surprisingly positive despite her difficult circumstances. If you know anything about Maya Angelou then you know that this is the first chapter in the life of a truly phenomenal woman.

What are the main inspirational messages that can be taken away from the book?

What does the book teach us about attitudes in society at that time?

Why do you think that Maya Angelou’s writing is so accessible even for those with completely different backgrounds?

Why do you think Maya Angelou chose to write autobiographical works?

In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Angelou shows the full spectrum of her childhood, the highs and lows. Why do you think she choose to express all sides of her childhood rather than just focusing on the negatives? Does this give us as the reader more of a sense of perspective from the child who has been the victim of these acts?

What do you think it would have been like to give birth as a black teenager during the 1940s? Do you think it would be hard to bring a baby into the world having the life experiences that Maya had already experienced by the age of seventeen?

Angelou claims she decided to remain mute, thinking that her words were the cause of Mr. Freeman’s death. What does this tell us about Angelou at this age and of her beliefs?

Do you think her opinion of the white race changes during the course of the novel? If so, in what way?

What do you think Angelou found in reading books? How did this alter her opinions on the world around her?

Stamps, Arkansas is significant in a large part of the Angelou’s childhood. Discuss how you think the town of Stamps helped shape Maya.

I-Know-Why-The-Caged-Bird-Sings-Discussion-Questions.pdf

After returning to Stamps, Maya isolates herself and carries on her mutism. Upon encountering Mrs Bertha Flowers, a woman of educated means and of class in black Stamps, Maya discovers a love of literature and poetry and is encouraged through these works and Mrs Flowers to regain her voice.

Fearing the dangers of racial tension in Stamps, Momma decides to send Maya and Bailey back to their mother in San Francisco. In San Francisco, Maya attends George Washington High school through a scholarship and becomes the first black female streetcar conductor. Maya also spends a summer with her father where she has numerous new experiences including a brief period of homelessness. In her final year of high school, Maya is concerned that she might be a lesbian, she engages in intercourse with a boy her age and subsequently becomes pregnant. Confiding in her brother Bailey, she hides the pregnancy until she is able to graduate high school. Her mother offers her support during the pregnancy. The book ends with Maya giving birth to a baby boy, Clyde.

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