About the Author
Maya Angelou, born April 4, 1928 as Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, was raised in segregated rural Arkansas. She is a poet, historian, author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director. She lectures throughout the US and abroad and is Reynolds professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina since 1981. She has published ten best selling books and numerous magazine articles earning her Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations. At the request of President Clinton, she wrote and delivered a poem at his 1993 presidential inauguration.
Why She Finally Wrote Her Autobiography
Going Home with Maya Angelou
In 1982 Bill Moyer accompanies Maya Angelou as she returns to Stamps, Arkansas. Then known as Marguerite Ann Johnson, she lived behind the family store. Young Marguerite grew up with her paternal grandmother, her Uncle Willie who was “crippled” and the racism of the mid-1930’s and early 1940’s. As Maya Angelou and Bill Moyers cross bridges and railroad tracks the author and civil rights activist recalls painful memories. Maya Angelou journeys, reflects and shares what took her voice away and how she reclaimed her voice. Maya Angelou says she was “terribly hurt in this town and vastly loved”.
My Terrible, Wonderful Mother
The Gurardian | 30 March 2013
Maya Angelou was just three when her mother sent her to live with her grandma, and 13 when they were reunited. After so long apart, could she ever learn to love her? [Read the Article]
At 80, Maya Angelou Reflects on a ‘Glorious’ Life
I’m telling you that the best decision I ever made was keeping that baby! Yes, absolutely. Guy was a delight from the start — so good, so bright, and I can’t imagine my life without him. [Read the full article]
Key Facts About the Book
GENRE · Autobiography
LANGUAGE · English
TIME AND PLACE WRITTEN · New York City, late 1960s
DATE OF FIRST PUBLICATION · 1969
PUBLISHER · Random House
NARRATOR · Maya Angelou
POINT OF VIEW · Maya Angelou speaks in the first person as she recounts her childhood. She writes both from a child’s point of view and from her perspective as an adult.
TONE · Personal, comical, woeful, and philosophical
TENSE · Past
SETTING (TIME) · 1930s–1950s
SETTING (PLACE) · Stamps, Arkansas; St. Louis, Missouri; Oakland, California; San Francisco, California
PROTAGONIST · Maya Angelou
MAJOR CONFLICT · Coming-of-age as a southern black girl, confronting racism, sexism, violence, and loneliness
RISING ACTION · Maya’s parents divorce; Maya and Bailey are sent to Stamps; Maya and Bailey move in with their mother in St. Louis; Maya is raped; Maya and Bailey return to Stamps; Bailey witnesses a victim of lynching; Maya and Bailey move to San Francisco to live with Vivian; Maya spends the summer with her father
CLIMAX · Maya runs away from her father, displaying her first true act of self-reliance and independence after a lifelong struggle with feelings of inferiority and displacement; here, she displaces herself intentionally, leading to important lessons she learns about humanity while in the junkyard community
FALLING ACTION · Maya lives for a month in the junkyard with a group of homeless teenagers; she becomes San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor; she becomes pregnant; she graduates high school; she gives birth to a son and gains confidence
THEMES · Racism and segregation; debilitating displacement; resistance
MOTIFS · Strong black women; literature; naming
SYMBOLS · The Store; Maya’s Easter dress
FORESHADOWING · The opening scene in the church foreshadows the struggles Maya will have to overcome in her life; when she cannot recite the poem and flees the church while crying and peeing, Angelou notes her fear of the people laughing at her and her sense of displacement and inferiority even among other blacks; she also leaves the church laughing, however, which foreshadows her ultimate success.
A great activity for book groups!
- What’s up with the end of the novel? Do you think it’s kind of sudden? What were you expecting?
- Could Maya’s story still happen today? What would be the same? What would be different?
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Singsis an autobiography, but it also has its fair share of fiction. How important are the facts when it comes to telling the truth?
- The novel is pretty funny, don’t you think? Why do you think Angelou wrote it this way when it treats such sensitive and serious subjects?
- Bailey also comes of age in this story. What would the novel look like if it were his autobiography instead?
- What’s up with the prologue? Why is it separate from the rest of the novel, and what is its significance?
- Maya ends the novel sixteen years old and pregnant. If she had her fifteen minutes of fame on the show16 and Pregnant, what would her episode be like?
- Do you think readers today interpret this book differently than readers did in 1969? How so?
- What other books have you read that treat the issues of race and sexuality as frankly asCaged Bird? What’s different about Angelou’s take?
More Discussion Questions
- The memoir opens with a provocative refrain: “What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay … ” What do you think this passage says about Ritie’s sense of herself? How does she feel about her place in the world? How does she keep her identity intact?
- Upon seeing her mother for the first time after years of separation, Ritie describes her as “a hurricane in its perfect power.” What do you think about Ritie’s relationship with her mother? How does it compare to her relationship with her grandmother, “Momma”?
- The author writes, “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.” What do you make of the author’s portrayal of race? How do Ritie and her family cope with the racial tension that permeates their lives?
- Throughout the book, Ritie struggles with feelings that she is “bad” and “sinful, ” as her thoughts echo the admonitions of her strict religious upbringing. What does she learn at the end of the memoir about right and wrong?
- What is the significance of the title as it relates to Ritie’s self-imposed muteness?
Study Questions and Answers
- What is the significance of the opening scene of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?
The first lines of the book are two lines of a poem Maya tries to recite in church on Easter Sunday: “What are you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay . . .” These lines correspond to two main issues she struggles with throughout her childhood: unhappiness with her appearance and a perpetual feeling of displacement.
From an early age, Maya has been told that she is ugly both by blacks, who notice the good looks of her brother and her parents, but also by the racist American culture itself because her skin is dark and her hair is kinky. In her fantasy, she sloughs off this unattractive shell—a curse put on her by a jealous “fairy stepmother”—revealing her true features: straight blond hair and blue eyes. Maya has been fantasizing about the lavender taffeta dress Momma altered for her and how in church she would look like one of the genteel white girls whom everybody seemed to think of as perfect. But the dress’s magic fades as she sees it for what it is, a white woman’s throwaway, and she ends up self-conscious and humiliated.
With this opening scene Angelou encapsulates the struggles that Maya will face in the years to come. Most black children in Stamps, Arkansas, rarely had contact with white people because the segregation was so complete, yet at the age of five or six, Maya has already internalized the idea that whiteness equals beauty. The opening scene demonstrates the pervasive effects of racism on a black southern girl’s consciousness. Although she is unaware, on an abstract level, of her displacement in society, Maya has already begun to regard her identity as a stigma.
Maya manages to escape the critical, mocking church community and laugh about her liberation, even though she knows she’ll get punished for it. Maya’s escape foreshadows the fact that she eventually overcomes the limitations of her childhood.
- What is the significance of Maya’s confrontation with Mrs. Cullinan?
Maya’s indignation when Mrs. Cullinan attempts to rename her Mary signals Maya’s deepening sense of self-worth and race consciousness. Her subsequent rebellion—breaking the white woman’s heirloom china—is a key moment in her development of a strong, positive sense of self. This renaming constitutes yet another form of displacement for Maya, and it reminds her of the renaming that occurs when white people use pejorative racial epithets in reference to blacks. Maya does not clarify whether she truly internalizes Mrs. Cullinan’s renaming as a threat to her identity racially. Nevertheless, when Mrs. Cullinan presumptuously tries to determine Maya’s name, Maya becomes furious and wishes to defend her identity.
Maya’s reaction to Mrs. Cullinan exemplifies the subtler forms of resistance available to American blacks. According to social codes, Maya could not directly demand recognition of her identity, but she finds a subversive form of resistance. When Mrs. Cullinan yet again calls her Mary, Maya breaks some of her favorite dishes and then pretends that it was an accident, as Bailey recommended she do. Mrs. Cullinan drops her veneer of gentility and begins screaming racist remarks at Maya, showing the power of Maya’s action to expose Mrs. Cullinan. Moreover, by switching back to Maya’s original name, Mrs. Cullinan unwittingly relinquishes control over Maya and admits defeat. “Mary” is her property, but “Margaret” is not.
- What is the significance of the sermon delivered at the annual revival?
The black southern church constituted another avenue for subversive resistance. At the revival, the preacher gives a sermon that criticizes white power without directly naming it. He never mentions white people, but his diatribe against greedy, self-righteous employers clearly attacks whites for paying miserable wages to black field laborers. He criticizes people who give charity with the expectation that the recipient will, in return, humble him or herself. He implicitly unleashes a diatribe against so-called charity from whites. Often, white people expected the black recipients of their charity to accept their lowly positions and avoid having pride in themselves. The people at the revival could entertain fantasies of their oppressors burning in hell with the support of divine will. For the most part, they shoulder the burden of their disadvantages of poverty and discrimination with resignation, attributing their suffering to God’s will. However, on occasion, the black church provides an outlet for their smoldering anger.
- How does friendship with Louise change Maya?
Maya’s experiences prior to her first friendship—with Louise—mature her beyond her years. Before the rape, she is isolated, and after the rape, she becomes even more so. Moreover, she and Bailey grow apart as they each enters the turbulent years of adolescence. Maya moves largely in a world of adults—Mrs. Flowers, Momma, and Willie. With Louise, Maya begins to experience being a young girl for the first time. They speak inventive languages with each other. They hold hands and play in the forest, looking up at the sky like children. With Louise, Maya examines the question of young love and crushes on Valentine’s Day. Their friendship is also Maya’s first relationship that begins beyond the confines of her family. Perhaps symbolically, their friendship emerges when Maya ventures into the forest away from the fish fry to find a private place to pee.
- How did Maya’s relationships with Big Bailey and Daddy Clidell differ? How does her relationship with Big Bailey compare with her relationship with Vivian?
Big Bailey does not show respect for Maya. He likes to use her to distract his increasingly dissatisfied girlfriend, Dolores, contributing to the final explosion of animosity between Dolores and Maya. At first, Maya views Big Bailey as a handsome stranger, but in California she sees him as a man who is self-deceived. He works in the kitchen of a naval hospital but calls himself a medical dietitian. He speaks with proper English and puts on airs, but he lives in a trailer park and travels to Mexico to drink and sleep around. With the trip to Mexico, Big Bailey tries to show Maya a sphere where he feels empowered after having been disenfranchised for his entire life. Nevertheless, he becomes too drunk to see his daughter shining with pride over her accomplishment in the seat next to him on the way home. Moreover, he reacts selfishly to the confrontation between Maya and Dolores. He chooses to take Maya to a friend for treatment instead of a doctor because he wanted to avoid personal embarrassment. He does not want anyone to know that his girlfriend physically attacked his daughter.
Even though Daddy Clidell operates in a similarly lowbrow society—among con men and gamblers—he exhibits unquestionable respect both for Maya and for himself. She perceives him as a man of strength and tenderness, the ideal combination according to her. Moreover, Daddy Clidell laughs proudly when people think that Maya is his biological daughter. He has no insecurities to hide and no superiority to flaunt. As a result, he gives Maya affection and respect, unlike Big Bailey. Maya considers Daddy Clidell the first real father she has ever had. Similarly, even though Vivian also abandons her children at different points in the novel, she nevertheless contrasts with Big Bailey at the end of the novel. Vivian may live a melodramatic life associating in unsavory circles with gamblers and con men, but she represents power and unflinching honesty. She possesses the good qualities found in Big Bailey, like a wonderful sense of humor and a love for fun, but she complements these with a strong conscience and a deep respect for herself, Bailey, and Maya. Especially in the final chapters, Maya shows how she listens to her mother’s wise words and sayings culled from her experiences.