I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


Why does Maya Angelou include the untitled introduction that precedes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 1?

The untitled passage sets the tone and serves the purpose of introducing the narrator as she grapples with issues she'll confront throughout the book. The repetition of the line "What you looking at me for?" in the poem she's trying to recite suggests her discomfort with her appearance as "a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil." The line "I didn't come to stay." foreshadows her long search for a place where she can feel a sense of belonging. The introductory passage also illustrates some of the narrator's important character traits. Even at a young age, she has a vivid imagination, which she sometimes uses to escape reality. She fancies how people would admire and respect her if only she were white. She also uses her imagination to convey feelings and actions in dramatic or amusing images, as when she describes how her head would burst if she doesn't relieve herself. She also has a sense of humor and is able to allow herself to laugh after feeling so embarrassed and humiliated when she can't control her bladder. The last two sentences of the passage introduce the adult Maya, who will sometimes interject a slightly different interpretation of feelings or events as she looks back on them from an older perspective. Here she notes, "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." From an early age through adulthood, the theme of the power of words (or lack thereof) continually influences how Maya interacts with and comes to understand the world around her.

In the untitled passage that precedes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 1 what does Maya's fantasy about the lavender Easter dress reveal about her self-acceptance?

As Maya watches Momma sew the lavender dress, it represents a talisman, a magical item that will make her "look like a movie star." She thinks being African American means she is unattractive, and she imagines herself as a white girl transformed by a jealous and "cruel fairy stepmother" who has imposed a "black ugly dream" upon her. When she wakes, people will see her for who she really is—a blue-eyed beauty with long blonde hair. She fantasizes the dress will change her into the sort of girl who is "everyone's dream" of what's "right with the world." But the reality of the finished dress is disappointing: it's just a remade white woman's castoff in an ugly color. Instead of accepting herself as she is, Maya clings to her fantasy and simply changes it.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 1 how does the description of mornings and evenings at the General Store reflect the hard lives of the cotton pickers?

In the mornings, the store is filled with the sounds of empty cotton sacks dragging on the floor, the cash register bell, and the voices of the workers laughing, joking, and boasting about how much they will accomplish. The sounds and smells convey a feeling of energy and hope. In the evenings, the sounds and smells convey a feeling of exhaustion and despair. The pickers return in the evenings, dragging with exhaustion and grumbling about being cheated and not being able to earn enough to pay down their debts or support their families. The mornings represent the hope that this day, this picking season, will be different and they'll come out ahead. The evenings represent the harsh reality that the deck is stacked against them.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 2 how does Uncle Willie's pretense of not being disabled relate to the theme of names and identity?

Uncle Willie's drooping mouth, stuttering speech, and partially disabled left arm and leg are physical characteristics that unmistakably identify him as a disabled person. He needs to use a cane to walk, and he's unable to do physical work like the other men in the community; instead, he's limited to helping Momma in the General Store. His habit of dressing meticulously in store-bought clothes helps to shore up his self-respect by elevating him a bit above the working men in the community. Yet, like young Maya's fantasy about being white, Uncle Willie has a fantasy in which he's not disabled. Like Maya, he'd like people to see him as someone who is in complete control of his life and is respected and admired. He takes the opportunity to try out this identity with the strangers from Little Rock.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 2 what does Maya's decision not to memorize a passage from Shakespeare reveal about her changing attitudes?

When Maya gives her Easter recitation shortly after arriving in Stamps, she wants to identify with whites and seems to want to distance herself from the African American community. Now, after a few years in Stamps, she says she admires Shakespeare for his literary talent, but she feels the need to pacify herself "about his whiteness." She tells herself that because he's been dead so long, his skin color doesn't matter now. She reveals she has a passion for African American writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and others. When she and Bailey decide to memorize a passage from The Merchant of Venice, they have second thoughts because they know Shakespeare's whiteness will matter to Momma. Maya is happy to substitute a poem by the African American poet James Weldon Johnson, indicating she has developed pride and a more positive attitude about being African American, probably largely due to Momma's influence.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 3 how does Maya Angelou use figurative language and sensory imagery to describe her feelings about the General Store?

The author makes several comparisons in her description of the General Store. In the mornings, it looks "like an unopened present from a stranger." She compares opening the doors in the morning to "pulling the ribbon off the unexpected gift." These images convey the idea that, like a gift, the store is filled with the promise of delightful surprises. The gesture of opening the doors suggests the image of welcoming people in. The soft light "easing itself over the shelves of mackerel, salmon, tobacco, thread" is as appealing to the eyes as the opening scene of a movie, putting the reader into the scene and suggesting a mood of abundance. The vat of lard that softens to "a thick soup" has a tactile appeal. Angelou personifies the store, describing it as "tired" by the afternoon, "with the slow pulse of its job half done." Before bedtime, the store "spread itself over the family in washed waves." To Maya, the store is a pleasant, comforting, protective force in their lives.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 3 how does Mr. Steward's warning suddenly change the mood in the General Store, and what does that suggest?

Before Mr. Steward arrives with a warning that the Klan is out looking for an African American man and might come for Uncle Willie, the General Store has been depicted as a welcoming, light-filled, comforting place filled with hope and promise. As soon as Mr. Steward leaves, Momma puts out the lights and hides Uncle Willie in the vegetable bin. The mood in the store becomes one of darkness and fear as Momma kneels and prays, and Uncle Willie moans in discomfort throughout the night. The sudden change of mood suggests the precarious nature of life for African Americans under segregation. Danger and death could threaten their lives at any time and for no reason.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 4 how does Angelou's adult perspective inform the reader's understanding of how segregation helps form the child's attitude toward white people?

The division between the African American section and the white section in Stamps is "so complete" that African American children hardly know what white children look like. From her adult perspective, Angelou explains that central to her community's attitude toward whites was "the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well-dressed." Poverty and powerlessness feed into the animosity African Americans have toward the white community. From the child's perspective, Maya picks up on the animosity, but not the reasons. To the child, whites aren't really people because they don't look like the folks on her side of town: their feet are too small, their skin is too white, and they walk funny.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 5 why does Momma want Maya to stay inside when the powhitetrash girls insult her outside the General Store?

Momma says the girls only frighten her when Maya is around. This may be because she's aware of how much Maya dislikes the powhitetrash children, pinching them whenever they come near her in the store. Momma might fear Maya would give vent to her anger and start a fight with the girls. If this happened, it could escalate into a major confrontation between the white and African American communities, with Maya painted as the instigator. As Maya watches from inside, she wants to throw things at the girls and scream at them, and she even thinks about pointing a shotgun at them. If she had stayed outside with Momma, Maya, too, would have become a target for the girls' insults, which could either have ignited Maya's anger or deflated her self-image.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 7 why might Momma have decided to shelter the man who was running from the police?

Momma has experienced oppression and discrimination at the hands of white society. She's well aware that so-called justice isn't really just when it comes to African American people. She also knows many African American men have been lynched based on little or no evidence of wrongdoing. Her distrust of white people is so strong that she prefers to avoid even talking to them. So she was likely more inclined to believe in the fugitive's innocence than to believe the accusations of the white people and the police. In addition, defying the establishment must have given some level of satisfaction for past wrongs, even to a woman as religious as Momma.

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