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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, what three women serve as mother figures for Maya, and how does each one affect her life?

An old-fashioned country woman, Momma is the anchor in Maya's early childhood. She provides structure and a strong foundation in values. Momma expresses her love through doing rather than saying. She's a model of steadiness, self-sufficiency, and responsibility. Under Momma's influence, Maya develops pride in being part of the African American community and an awareness of racism and the injustice of segregation. Described by Maya as the "aristocrat of Black Stamps," Mrs. Flowers helps to pull Maya out of her silence and withdrawal by sharing with her the love of books. She guides Maya's literary education and gives her "life lessons" in tolerance and self-acceptance. Maya thinks of Mrs. Flowers as the model of a true gentlewoman who makes her feel proud to be African American. She credits Mrs. Flowers with giving her the love of books that sustains her throughout her life. Maya's mother, Vivian Baxter, a modern, independent-minded woman, takes over from Momma when Maya is about to enter high school. She provides material and emotional support, along with humor, modern sensibilities, and a certain irreverence. She bolsters Maya's self-acceptance by providing unwavering and uncritical support for whatever goals Maya decides to pursue.

What are three examples that illustrate the theme of racism in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

In Chapter 23, Mr. Donleavy, the politician who speaks at Maya's graduation ceremony, announces that, in contrast to the academic improvements that will be made at the white school, the African American school will be getting improvements to their sports field. His message is that African Americans shouldn't aspire to academic achievement. In Chapter 24, Dentist Lincoln, in Stamps, refuses to treat Maya for the severe pain she's experiencing. He tops off his refusal with insulting racial insults. Momma and Maya are forced to travel 25 miles by bus to Texarkana to see an African American dentist. In Chapter 34, when Maya applies for a job on the San Francisco streetcars, she is repeatedly refused an interview because there's a policy of not hiring African Americans to work on streetcars. It takes three weeks of persistent effort for Maya to finally be offered the job.

How is the theme of the power of words represented in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 18?

The revival meeting is held at the end of a workday, when cotton pickers are exhausted and aching from their day's work. But instead of going home to rest, they're motivated to go to the gathering. At the meeting, the congregation joins in asking for deliverance from suffering, which is interspersed with hymns whose joyful rhythms have an energizing effect on the assembly. The preacher focuses his sermon on the topic of charity and speaks of how true charity doesn't require subservience and humiliation. The listeners are refreshed and rejuvenated by the message that God loves the poor and despises those who rule over them. Emotions run high and members of the congregation punctuate the sermon with little screams and comments. They leave the meeting in a much better state of mind than when they arrived, assured that their suffering will be rewarded.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapters 11 and 26 what are two examples where Maya does not seem to be a reliable narrator?

Maya presents an idealized version of her mother, portraying her as glamorous, fun-loving, a competent provider, and well-liked by everyone in the neighborhood. Yet she is a virtual stranger to her children for nearly the first decade of their lives. Although she is a trained nurse, she chooses to work in gambling parlors, leaving Bailey and Maya with Mr. Freeman in the evenings. Maya brushes off her mother's outbursts of temper, saying Vivian is always "fair" and suggesting she is justified in losing her temper. Most puzzling is how Maya seems almost proud that her mother shoots a man because he called her a name she didn't like.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, what qualities does Daddy Clidell have as a father figure and as a man that Daddy Bailey lacks?

As a father figure, Daddy Clidell is reliable, caring, and considerate. He's protective of Maya, as he shows when he decides to have some of his associates teach her how to avoid being the victim of con men. Unlike Daddy Bailey, Daddy Clidell is proud of Maya, beaming when people think she is his daughter. He treats Maya with consideration and respect. Daddy Bailey has been mostly absent from Maya's life, and when he's with her, he doesn't show any real interest in her happiness or well-being. As a man, Daddy Clidell has achieved success without putting on airs and he's comfortable with who he is. Daddy Bailey, on the other hand, hasn't been successful in life and he tries to compensate by pretending to be more than he is. For example, he's a kitchen worker but tells people he's a dietician.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, what do the comments of Angelou as an adult add to the reader's understanding?

Although the story is told primarily from the point of view of Maya as a child, the adult Angelou sometimes includes comments "from the perch of age," as she does in Chapter 4, when she explains that in spite of her childhood fascination with a neighbor in Stamps, Mr. McElroy, she later realized there was nothing at all special about him. In Chapter 26 she uses the adult point of view to include insights about Momma in Los Angeles that didn't occur to her until she was older. The background information in Chapter 27 about the disappearance of Japanese residents from San Francisco during the war establishes the setting and reveals a more adult viewpoint than teenage Maya would have expressed. In Chapter 28 Angelou recalls that years after high school, she returned just to see a favorite teacher, Miss Kirwin; this anecdote emphasizes the long-lasting effect that one person had on her life.

How does I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chapter 32 reflect the theme of community, and what does the junkyard teach Maya about what she needs from community?

Maya accidentally stumbles on the ready-made community of homeless children and realizes she instantly feels accepted and comfortable. They work together to support themselves, and for the first time Maya feels what it's like to be in a place where people of different races accept one another without prejudice. The unquestioning acceptance by others builds Maya's self-confidence and banishes her insecurity. Finally, Maya is able to see herself as a competent, likable person who has a lot to contribute to society. She knows this isn't a community where she'll stay for very long, but just the knowledge of the existence of such a community gives her hope she can find a place where she feels she belongs.

What is the importance of literature in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

Maya develops a love of reading at an early age, and she and Bailey enjoy memorizing and reciting favorite poems and passages from literature. As a lonely child, the writers and the characters Maya meets in books provide a sense of connection and community. In Chapter 2 Maya says she "met and fell in love with Shakespeare." Maya and Bailey read voraciously, both good literature and pulp magazines. It's Maya's love of books that pulls her out of her trauma-induced silence, under the guidance of Mrs. Flowers. Literature sustains Maya and feeds her imagination. When she leaves Stamps for good, she says Mrs. Flowers had given her a djinn, or protective spirit, that would serve her all her life: books.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, how does Maya's attitude toward whites change over the course of her childhood and teen years?

As a young child, Maya admires whites and wishes she could be one. Eventually, mainly due to negative experiences with such people in Stamps, she comes to dislike them. She develops such antipathy to whites that she doesn't even want to think of them as real people. In Stamps, segregation is so complete that her interactions are rare. When she attends a high school in a white section of San Francisco, she describes a teacher she admires, so that may indicate a softening of her attitude. She doesn't say much about the students, but she does say that she dreads taking the bus through the neighborhood to get to school. In the junkyard in Los Angeles, Maya lives and works with a group of homeless children that includes multiple ethnicities. She describes this as a positive experience that teaches her a lesson in tolerance she'll carry throughout her life. She tries out this tolerance later, in San Francisco, when she decides to get a job on the streetcars. When the white clerk politely turns her away, Maya doesn't blame the clerk; instead, she tells herself that the clerk is "a fellow victim of the same puppeteer."

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, what is the symbolic significance of the caged bird?

Maya Angelou has taken the title of her autobiography from the last line of a poem by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the poem, the caged bird beats its wings against the bars of the cage until they're bloody. It sings to send to Heaven a prayer and a plea for freedom. The caged bird represents Maya in her struggle to be free of the restrictions that racism and displacement have placed on her life. The caged bird might also represent other people in Maya's story who are prevented from being able to "fly" because of racism and other factors, such as poverty, disability, or lack of education: the cotton pickers, Uncle Willie, Daddy Bailey, and the entire African American community of Stamps.

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