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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 8 how does Momma's plan to keep the General Store afloat during the Depression result in an example of situational irony?

Momma is a successful businesswoman who owns land and houses in addition to the General Store. But when the Depression hits, workers' wages are cut and business at the store declines. Momma comes up with a plan to keep the customers coming in. She allows them to trade their welfare rations for credits they can use to buy goods from the store. This means that customers bring in their rations of dried milk and eggs, flour, and the like, and exchange them for store goods such as peanut butter and canned meats. The situational irony occurs in the discrepancy between expectation and reality. Although Momma's family isn't on welfare, they eat powdered eggs and drink powdered milk every day while their customers, who are on welfare, eat peanut butter and canned meats.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 8 what is the symbolic significance of tearing the stuffing out of Maya's Christmas doll?

The blue-eyed, blonde-haired doll recalls Maya's earlier fantasy about wanting to be white. However, she has moved on from that fantasy as her self-acceptance grows. She doesn't even consider whites as "folks" anymore, so the gift from her mother serves only as a reminder that her mother doesn't know or understand her at all. The doll is a symbol of Maya's discarded past dreams, and it also represents a failed connection to her mother. Destroying it can be interpreted as a statement of Maya's growth and self-awareness as well as an expression of her disappointment in her relationship with her mother.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 9 how do Maya's fantasies about her father conflict with the reality of his personality?

Maya is imaginative and romantic, so in her fantasies her father is likely to have been a paragon of fatherhood: handsome, dashing, well educated, kind, caring, thoughtful, understanding, and fun to be with. In reality, Daddy Bailey is "blindingly handsome." He's not very tall, but quite dashing, as his clothes are too tight and woolly. He has a loud, metallic voice and speaks proper, somewhat affected, English. Maya thinks his clothes and his car indicate he's rich. He's brash and conceited and makes her feel embarrassed when he laughs at the way she cuts her food. Most importantly, after three weeks, he still seems like a stranger to Maya.

What details in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 10 show similarities and differences between Grandmother Baxter and Momma?

Grandmother Baxter is light skinned and speaks with a German accent. Momma is African American and speaks with a Southern country accent. Grandmother Baxter has had a happy marriage, while Momma has had three failed marriages. Like Momma, Grandmother Baxter is a well-respected and powerful figure in her community. Grandmother Baxter derives her respect and power from her position as a precinct captain and from the reputation of her tough, mean sons. Momma derives her respect and power from her position as a land and store owner and as a pillar of the church and social community. Both women are self-sufficient, intelligent, and supportive of their families.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 11 why doesn't Maya tell anyone about being abused by Mr. Freeman?

Maya is only eight years old, and she's confused about what has happened; she doesn't know enough about sex to understand that Mr. Freeman has abused her. She has been taught to be quiet and respectful of adults, so she doesn't question Mr. Freeman when he accuses her of wetting the bed. Mr. Freeman threatens to kill Bailey if she tells anyone what he has done to her, so she can't ask Bailey or her mother to help her understand what happened. In addition, having never been cuddled or held before, she feels protected and "at home" when he holds her, imagining that he might be her real father.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, how does Maya's rape and the murder of Mr. Freeman affect Maya's inner development over the next eight years?

Being raped by Mr. Freeman at the age of eight, when she doesn't really understand what is happening to her, gives Maya mistaken ideas about sex and relationships. She assumes all sex is painful and traumatic, like her rape, and warns Bailey against "doing it" with Joyce. It also makes her wary of Tommy Valdon's motives when he innocently asks her to be his valentine. Mr. Freeman's murder causes Maya to stop talking to nearly everyone except Bailey for nearly a year. The Baxter family's frustration with her silence causes them to send Maya and Bailey back to Stamps, where Mrs. Flowers introduces her to the power of the spoken word and gives her valuable "life lessons."

How do Maya's and Bailey's feelings about being in Stamps in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 14 contrast?

Maya feels relieved about being away from the hustle and bustle of St. Louis. Being in Stamps is like being in a protective cocoon; it's calming to her nerves. Momma, Uncle Willie, and the General Store customers are less demanding than the Baxter family in St. Louis, allowing her to withdraw into herself as she heals. Bailey, however, is angry and disappointed to be back in Stamps and away from "Mother Dear," as he calls Vivian. Instead of withdrawing, he strikes out in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. He amuses himself by telling tall tales about what life is like in the big city of St. Louis. And he uses sarcasm to mock the plain, unsophisticated people of Stamps who don't realize they're being mocked. Their varied reactions to being back in Stamps shows the impact one's environment can have on making someone feel either safe or stifled, depending on the individual's state of mind.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 15 why does Mrs. Flowers advise Maya to "always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy"?

Mrs. Flowers might have observed Maya cringe when she hears Momma speak informally by using incorrect verbs and colloquial language. She wants Maya to understand many country people never have the opportunity to go to school to learn "proper English." However, just because they're illiterate doesn't mean they're not intelligent. Mrs. Flowers explains that some illiterate people are more intelligent than college professors, and it would be a mistake to ignore what they have to say. Country people use sayings that contain the collective wisdom of many generations, and Maya will be missing out if she ignores what people say just because they don't use proper grammar.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 16 how does Maya express her shifting attitude from neutral to sympathetic to dislike regarding Mrs. Cullinan?

At the beginning of the chapter, Maya shows a neutral attitude toward Mrs. Cullinan and describes her as "plump," "unattractive," but looking like "an impish elf" when she smiles. Finding out that Mrs. Cullinan can't have children appeals to Maya's romantic sense of tragedy. Maya feels so sorry for her that she applies extra diligence to her work and plans to write a tragic ballad about "her loneliness and pain." But when Mrs. Cullinan decides to rename her "Mary," Maya is angry with her. Allowing herself to be renamed for the convenience of a white woman threatens Maya's developing sense of self-worth. Not only does she immediately lose all sympathy for Mrs. Cullinan, she also takes some pleasure in seeing how distraught and out of control the woman becomes when Maya breaks her favorite dishes.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 17 why does Bailey say "the baby prayer" before he goes to sleep?

Since his return to Stamps from St. Louis, Bailey has been grief-stricken over the separation from his mother. At the movies, earlier, he had seen a movie star he thought looked exactly like Vivian, except that the movie star was white. He stayed for the second showing of the movie just to prolong the feeling of being with his mother. The experience is so emotional for him that he can't explain to Momma, or even to Maya, why he is so late coming home, earning him a whipping from Uncle Willie. Saying "the baby prayer" before bed, instead of the usual Lord's Prayer, is a way for Bailey to try to connect with the time before he was first sent to Stamps, when he was with his mother.

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