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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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What does I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 28 reveal about Maya's attitude toward education?

It's evident Maya continues to have great respect for the importance of education. She describes San Francisco's George Washington High School in the white neighborhood as "the first real school" she has attended. Used to being at the top of her class, she's disappointed she's not among the most brilliant students. It doesn't help that, because of her need for self-approval, she isn't as aggressive as the white students are in answering teachers' questions in various classes. Before she volunteers an answer, she needs to be certain her answer is correct. Accepting a scholarship to study drama and dance in the evenings, at age 14, shows her dedication to educating herself in the arts as well in academics.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 30 how does the trip to Mexico affect Maya's relationship with her father?

On the trip to Mexico, Maya sees a side of her father she has never seen before. In the Mexican cantina he drops his affectations and seems more relaxed than Maya has ever before seen him, probably because he doesn't feel the need to impress the Hispanic peasants. Maya realizes her father is basically a lonely person who never has found the place in life he aspires to or thinks he deserves. He disappears at the cantina, leaving Maya to wonder if he's abandoned her there, and then he drinks so much that he can't drive. His self-centered and inconsiderate behavior forces Maya to take matters into her own hands. She realizes that this isn't the father of her dreams who will protect and take care of her. When she thinks about going off on her own instead of staying with him, she says she knows he'll be relieved if she disappears.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 32 why does Maya say it's odd that the homeless children initiated her "into the brotherhood of man"?

Until she meets the homeless children at the junkyard, Maya has been focused primarily on identifying with the African American community. Prejudice has led her to avoid whites, and the interactions she's had with them (such as with Dentist Lincoln in Stamps) have been negative experiences. But the homeless children are of different races: white, African American, and Hispanic. They work together to earn money for the group. Being accepted by these children and working closely with them teaches Maya she shouldn't assume every white person is prejudiced against African Americans. From the homeless children she learns a lesson of tolerance that she carries throughout life.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 33 why does Maya compare her position in the family to "Switzerland in World War II"?

Bailey and Mother are engaged in a conflict over Bailey's behavior. Bailey has taken up with a tough crowd. He stays out late and breaks Mother's rules of behavior. They argue constantly for several weeks. Mother threatens to throw Bailey out of the house, and he threatens he'll be happy to leave. Maya isn't involved in the conflict and doesn't want to take sides. Like Switzerland, a neighbor of Germany that stayed neutral during World War II, Maya is surrounded by conflict, but she resists being drawn into the fray, knowing that, in any case, it will not end well.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 34 what does the blue serge suit symbolize, and how does that compare with the lavender Easter dress?

The blue serge suit is the uniform worn by San Francisco streetcar conductors. When Maya decides she wants to get a job as a conductor, she imagines herself wearing the blue uniform, and the suit becomes a symbol of attainment. Because African Americans are never hired to work on streetcars, the suit also becomes a symbol for overcoming racial barriers. Maya wants to wear the blue serge suit to show that African Americans can perform as well as whites, and racial barriers can be overcome. She wanted to wear the lavender Easter dress to show everyone she was really a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed, white girl. In both cases, the dresses represent attainment of a goal; but Maya's goal has changed from one of rejection of who she is to one of celebration.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 35 how does Maya's independence lead her astray when she tries to answer questions about her sexuality?

When Maya wonders if changes in her body mean she might be a lesbian, she tries to find answers in books. She asks her mother only as a last resort. Her mother reassures her she's going through normal changes. When Maya begins to have doubts again, instead of talking to her mother, she relies on her own reasoning and analysis. She reassures herself she doesn't have lesbian traits or desires, but she wants proof and rashly decides having sex will help her settle her doubts. If she had talked over her plans with her mother or with a friend, she would most likely have come to realize, first of all, that her fears are unfounded, and second, that her plan is foolish.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 36 what does Maya mean when she says she's "above out-and-out lying" but not above deceit?

It is well known in the family that Maya never lies. She explains the reason she has established the policy of never telling a lie: she is "too proud." She doesn't want to have to admit, if ever caught in a lie, that she is less than perfect. It doesn't fit in with her self-image as an honest, upright person. But deceit doesn't require outright lying; it simply involves creating a false impression. According to Maya's moral code, deceit doesn't rise to the level of lying on the scale of right and wrong, so engaging in deceit doesn't violate her moral code.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapters 4 and 6 how does Bailey's influence provide a counterbalance to the serious, strict expectations of Momma and Uncle Willie?

Bailey has more self-confidence than Maya, and a more adventurous, mischievous personality. While Maya tries hard to obey Momma's rules of behavior, Bailey has no problem bending the rules if he can get away with it. He steals pickles from the barrel in the General Store and comes up with inventive games. His keen mind is quick to spot the humor in a situation, and he shares laughs and jokes with Maya. It's likely the scheme to eavesdrop on Momma and Reverend Thomas's gossip sessions is Bailey's invention. Without Bailey as a counterbalance, Maya's strong need for approval might have caused her to become a more docile, serious child.

How does Maya's relationship with Bailey change over the course of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

As young children in Stamps, Arkansas, Bailey and Maya are very close. He's the protective older brother who always has some advice to offer to Maya and who doesn't let anyone get away with saying anything unkind about her. Their relationship begins to change when Maya is eight and Bailey is nine, and they go to St. Louis to stay with their mother. Bailey becomes obsessed with gaining his mother's attention and approval. They remain close, though, and it's Bailey who persuades Maya to tell who raped her. When they go back to Stamps, Bailey is the one person Maya talks to during her year of virtual silence. After Maya graduates from eighth grade and they move to California to be with their mother, Bailey and Maya begin to grow apart. Bailey takes up with a tough crowd and begins acting out and having frequent blowups with his mother until he finally moves out at age 16, after rejecting Maya's offer to help. By the time Maya becomes pregnant the following year, Bailey is away at sea with the merchant marines. They keep in touch by mail and seem to be growing more and more apart.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Momma often says Maya is "tender hearted," or sensitive. How does this character trait help Maya in difficult social situations?

Maya really is sensitive, but there are times when having a reputation for being tenderhearted is convenient. Whenever fat, obnoxious Reverend Taylor comes to stay, he greets Bailey and Maya with a big hug. Maya is repelled by Reverend Taylor and bursts into tears when he offers a hug. Momma then tells Reverend Taylor that Maya is tenderhearted, and this excuses her from having to hug the man. Similarly, after Maya returns to Stamps from St. Louis, being tenderhearted provides an excuse for her silence and withdrawal. It's assumed that she's quiet because she misses her life in the big city.

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