The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970)

  1. How is this autobiography different from the earlier African-American women's autobiographies and autobiographical novels you have read?
  2. Based on the testimony of this book, how have things improved or failed to improve for the southern black woman since Harriet Jacobs?
  3. What is the significance of the title, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"? What interpretation does it add to the contents of Angelou's life story?
  4. In what time and place is this autobiography set? What are indications of its date?
  5. At what stage of the protagonist's life does her book begin? What do we first learn about her family?
  6. What are some of her first memories? What do these seem to indicate about her character? What does she think of church? (21) school? her relatives? white people? the sheriff?
  7. What do we later learn of the character of Angelou's grandmother? her uncle? her parents?
  8. What are some ways in which Angelou's family background may have affected her character?
  9. What was the significance of her relationship with Bailey? How is he described?
  10. What are some evidences of the nature of race relations in the U. S. South and in Stamps? How does the Henderson/Johnson family react to mockery and threats?
  11. Why is Maya angry when the sheriff warns her family that Uncle Willie should hide from potential lynchers?
  12. What are features of Angelou's style? To what extent does she dramatize situations? How does her style affect your response to her narration?
  13. What were her experiences with/ attitudes toward black and white people? What does she believe about the existence of white people? (26)
  14. How does Angelou present religion in the African-American community? Does she respect its ministers? (35) Is she herself religious?
  15. What are some ridiculous aspects of the scene with the Rev. Taylor and Sister Monroe? (40)
  16. What seems to be the attitude of the older family members toward corporal punishment? (45) Does the narrator seem to resent having been struck?
  17. What seem to be generational differences between Maya and her grandmother? (47) Can you think of other books of the period which reflect a similar division?
  18. What values are attributed to the grandmother and Willie? (47)
  19. What seems to have been their family's relative status in the black community? (51)
  20. What first causes Maya and Bailey to be disillusioned about their parents? (52) What is her reaction to the visit of her father? (55) Does this seem to be shared by the grandmother, Willie and Bailey?
  21. To what extent does the narrative separate out a child's from the adult's later point of view? Does I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings convey a child's point of view convincingly? (53)
  22. Are there comic episodes in the book? Is the humor light? What are some purposes which they serve?
  23. What are Marguerite's reactions to being taken to St. Louis? To the meeting with her mother? (60)
  24. What does she learn about her grandmother, mother and uncles?
  25. What is her reaction to life in St. Louis? (61) To its school system?
  26. What is her stepfather like? (69)
  27. How are issus of accent and speech presented in her account? (64) Which characters have the more urban speech?
  28. What was her earliest experience with sexuality? What characterizes Mr. Freeman's actions and what effect do they have on her? (72ff)
  29. How may this experience have affected her later attitudes toward sex?
  30. What happened at the trial, and how did it affect her? What later happened to Mr. Freeman, and why does she feel guilty? (86)
  31. What purpose did reading serve in her life? What kinds of fantasies does the young Angelou have? (76)
  32. Why are the children sent back to Stamps? (88) Do you think their return was fortunate?
  33. What role is played in her life by Mrs. Flowers?
  34. How does the grandmother react to her speech after she returns from her visit?
  35. What is Marguerite's first job? (106) How is she treated by her employer, and what revenge does she take to escape? (107) Do you think this was the best means of leaving her employment?
  36. How do we know that Bailey and Marguerite miss their mother? (119)
  37. What purpose is served by the revival meeting? (129) What religions are represented there? (123)
  38. What correlation does the narrator draw between African-American religious and sacred music?
  39. What role does Louise have in her life? (142) How does she react to her first romance? (145)
  40. What significance does Joe Louis's championship have on the black community? (136)
  41. What is notable about Bailey's relationship with his mother?
  42. What are some factors that cause brother and sister to grow apart?
  43. After her move to Los Angeles, what is Maya's relationship to her father, stepmother and mother?
  44. What attitude toward her own blackness does Maya eventually adopt?

  45. What are some ironic aspects of the account of Bailey's first sexual relationship? (chapter 21) Why does he steal from his grandmother's store? (149)
  46. Why does Joyce leave, and what effect does her departure have on Bailey? (150)
  47. What faith does the narrator put in folk ghost stories? What are some strange and sad aspects of Brother Taylor's tale? How do the reactions to it by children and adults differ?
  48. What memories does she have of Mrs. Taylor's funeral? (160ff) What thoughts does it prompt in her?
  49. What do we learn about Arkansas standards for teachers at the time? (172) Why is Maya's graduation so important to her?
  50. What distressing event happens at the graduation? What action redeems it?
  51. What in the words of James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing" do you think so appealed to its audience? (183) What importnat social role does Angelou ascribe to black poets?
  52. What level of dental care was available for someone of Angelou's background? What incident occurs when her grandmother takes her to the nearest dentist?
  53. What accounts are given of the grandmother's confrontation of the racist dentist? Why were two accounts necessary?
  54. What sight deeply frightens Bailey? What are some grotesque and painful aspects of the scene of the disposal of a body? How do his family react to his news? (198)
  55. Why does Maya think she and her brother may have been sent to California? Is she consulted in this choice?
  56. What do you think may have been the effect on Maya of her several moves and residences?
  57. What is her reaction upon being reunited with her mother? What description of her mother does she give? What are some instances of the latter's past behavior?
  58. What seems the narrator's reaction to the story of her mother's shooting of a business partner? To the story of the robbing of the white purchaser of property? (224)
  59. What does the protagonist think of life in Los Angeles? In San Francisco?
  60. What effect does World War II have on the black community of San Francisco? On Maya and her family? How do Maya's neighbors respond to the eviction of the Japanese?
  61. What kind of high school does Maya attend? What are some differences she finds between herself and her white classmates? What are her forms of extracurricular eduction? (225)
  62. How do her academic studies go? What kind of scholarship does she win? (217)
  63. Is she encouraged by her family to stay in school?
  64. What is the character of her stepfather Daddy Clidell? What is his relationship with Maya?
  65. How does she get along with her biological father? What do we learn about his character, life and habits? What seems to be his attitude toward parenting?
  66. Does Maya get along with his partner Dolores? Does the narrator have some sympathy for her hostile stepmother?
  67. What are some dramatic or frightening aspects of the trip to Mexico? What does she learn about her father's other life?
  68. What is remarkable about the scene in which she drives her father home at night, then crashes the car? Is the scene comic?
  69. What is the occasion of her final quarrel with Dolores? What view does the narrator hold of her own youthful reaction?
  70. What problems does Maya face in finding a job, and how does she succeed?
  71. What is Bailey's relationship with his mother? Under what circumstances does he leave home? How do he and Maya part? What seems to be his likely future?
  72. What problems does Angelou believe face children as they mature into adults, and how does she resist? What problems does she believe confront African-American female adolescents in particular?
  73. How does her response to her biological mother change as the book progresses? What roles does the latter serve at the book's conclusion?
  74. What are some features of her experience of puberty? Do others inform her of what to expect?
  75. What motivates her first sexual encounter and her conception of a child? What are her observations on the event?
  76. Does she expect a relationship with the child's father? How does her family respond to her pregnancy?
  77. In what ways is the birth of her child important to her? Do you think it provides a good ending for the book?
  78. What are some of your favorite scenes from the book? With what reflections does the book leave you?

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