I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Essay Questions

1. The narrator describes herself at various points in the Preface. Give a written description of the narrator. Do you think the narrator has a positive self-image? Explain.

2. The narrator fantasizes during the Preface. What are some of her fantasies?

Chapter 1
1. The setting is an important part of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Describe the Store in the morning. What smells, sights, etc. are there? Contrast this with a store opening in this day and time.

2. Contrast the pickers in the morning and in the evening.

Chapter 2
1. Describe Uncle Willie’s teaching methods. How do his methods differ from those of a typical elementary school teacher? How are they the same?

2. Angelou uses a young child to reveal Uncle Willie to the reader. What does she tell the reader about Uncle Willie? Describe the tragedy of Willie’s lameness as told through Marguerite. Can a young, innocent narrator present an accurate picture of Uncle Willie? Explain your answer.

Chapter 3
1. Marguerite performed many tasks about the Store and home. Why would Marguerite consider feeding the pigs one of the worst of the chores? Do you think that Marguerite during the Depression had to assume more responsibilities than children today? Explain your answer.

2. Mr. Steward came to tell the family to hide Uncle Willie. Why was Marguerite angry at Mr. Steward about this? Describe hiding Uncle Willie. What was Uncle Willie’s reaction to the hiding? Why do you think that Uncle Willie behaved in this manner?

Chapter 4
1. Marguerite and Bailey have the same parents and are growing up together. What similarities do you see between the two characters? What are the contrasts that you see?

2. Marguerite presents the reader with a look at the segregated Stamps of the 1930s. Describe Stamps as it was when Marguerite was growing up there. What differences would you expect to find there more than half a century later?

Chapter 5
1. Describe Mrs. Henderson’s encounter with the powhitetrash. Why do you think Mrs. Henderson behaved as she did? What feelings do you think she had after the encounter?

2. What values did Mrs. Henderson teach her grandchildren? Do you think these values were the same as those taught in the homes of the powhitetrash? Explain your answer.

Chapter 6
1. Describe Reverend Thomas. What were Marguerite’s feelings about the Reverend Thomas? Why would she not shake hands with him?

2. The narrator in Chapter 6 is very young. What evidence do you have that she is an innocent child? How does her innocence affect what is told in this chapter? Give examples.

Chapter 7
1. How did Mrs. Henderson react when she was called on to lead a hymn? What do you think these motions and movements mean?

2. Describe the incident when Momma was called “Mrs.” by the judge. What is the symbolism in the story? How do whites react to the story? How do Negroes react to the story, according to Marguerite?

Chapter 8
1. What did the children receive for Christmas? How did they feel about the gifts? What were some of the questions the gifts raised for them?

2. Describe the feelings that Marguerite had toward the white “things.” Why do you think that Marguerite had mixed feelings?

Chapter 9
1. Describe Bailey Henderson, Sr., as he appeared to Marguerite. Do you see any weaknesses in Bailey Henderson, Sr.? Do you see any strengths in him? Explain.

2. Describe Marguerite’s grandmother. Do you see any weaknesses in her? What are her greatest strengths? Explain

Chapter 10
1. Compare and contrast the schools, the classmates, the curriculum and the teachers that Marguerite and Bailey are accustomed to in Stamps with those they find in St. Louis.

2. Describe Grandmother Baxter in appearance and in personality. Compare and contrast her with Marguerite’s other grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson.

Chapter 11
1. What was Marguerite’s routine after school each day? Compare and contrast this routine to her after-school routine in Stamps.

2. Describe how Marguerite copes with her life in St. Louis and with the secrets Mr. Freeman forces her to keep.


(The entire section is 1812 words.)

  • 1

    What role does the Great Migration play in Maya Angelou’s life and in the events of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings?

    The Great Migration is present in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from the moment the book begins. Mother and Daddy Bailey send Maya and Bailey back South after their marriage and their hopes for economic prosperity in California fail. This movement of Black bodies from the American South to the North and West (and vice versa) is called the Great Migration. Maya’s family is one of the many Black families fleeing racial violence and oppression in the South, and searching for freedom and economic opportunities in the North and West. Maya and Bailey participate in the Great Migration again when Momma decides that the South is no longer safe for them after Bailey’s brush with white Stamps. The central idea of the Great Migration, the idea that prosperity and freedom from racism can be found if one just escapes the South, fuels many of the choices of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ characters. Thus, the Great Migration plays a critical, influencing role in many of the book’s events.

  • 2

    Discuss the character of Momma. What impact did she have on Maya’s life?

    Momma is the matriarch of Maya’s family. A deeply religious woman, she raises Maya and Bailey strictly but fairly. Though Momma is not one to show affection, Maya knows that she is a recipient of Momma’s “deep-brooding love” (94). Without Momma, Maya and Bailey’s lives would have turned out very differently. After all, the kids are first sent to live with Momma because their parents are not fit to raise them. Daddy Bailey is too self-absorbed and vain, whereas Mother flits around like a butterfly and is “too beautiful to have children” (99). Momma provides Maya and Bailey with a stable home, more than enough food, and structure. Furthermore, she gives Maya her first lessons on dealing with and overcoming racism.

  • 3

    Bailey and Maya began the novel as inseparable siblings, but by the end Bailey seems to purposefully push his sister away. Why do you think Bailey alienates his sister?

    Bailey’s most important relationships are with Maya and Mother. Bailey and Maya are dependent on one another from the beginning, starting when they were put alone on the train to Stamps. This closeness persists even after Bailey falls “instantly and forever in love” with Mother (99). The change in Bailey and Maya’s relationship begins subtly when they leave St. Louis and return to Stamps. Bailey begins to keep secrets from Maya, such as the one about Kay Francis, the white actress that resembles Mother. Maya gets her first girlfriend, and Bailey begins to explore sex with the girls in his acquaintance.

    All of these developments seem like typical occurrences in the transition from child to adult. However, as Bailey’s relationship to Mother begins to fall apart, so does his relationship to Maya. When Mother kicks Bailey out of the house and Maya goes to comfort him, he tells her “leave me the shit alone” (431). And when he leaves for his job with Southern Pacific, the once loquacious and open siblings cannot find the words to verbalize their feelings and thoughts. It is important to note that Bailey’s relationship with Maya suffers around the same time as his relationship to Mother. As he transitions to manhood, Bailey alienates the principal women in his life. Perhaps this is a misguided attempt to be manlier. Or perhaps Bailey thinks he is too close to the women in his life. Both explanations have credence.

  • 4

    Analyze the influence of beauty and appearance on Maya’s life and choices.

    From the opening pages of the book we are exposed to Maya’s beliefs about race and beauty. These beliefs do transform over the course of Caged Bird, but at the beginning Maya equates whiteness with beauty. She hopes that the lavender taffeta dress will make her “look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right in the world” (6). It is only until Maya sees Mother in St. Louis that she consciously acknowledges the beauty of Black women. It takes Maya even longer to realize her own beauty, but she finally does on the day of her lower school graduation. She still grapples with self-esteem issues, but her life in California helps her deal with that as well. She decides to take dance classes after Bailey tells her they would “make [her] legs big and widen [her] hips” (362).

    It is also in California that Maya begins to fear her big feet, deep voice, skinny legs, and lack of breasts means she’s not a “real” woman, and a lesbian. Clearly, though she is growing more comfortable in her own body, Maya still harbors very particular ideals of what is beautiful and womanly, and what isn’t. Her desire to be like a woman leads Maya to have unprotected sex and become pregnant. The impact of beauty and appearance on Maya’s decisions and life cannot be overstated.

  • 5

    Compare and contrast the various settings in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

    Stamps, St. Louis, and San Francisco are extremely different cities. Stamps is heavily segregated, whereas St. Louis is less segregated and San Francisco lesser still. Stamps is located in rural Arkansas and lacks many of the modern conveniences and technologies that St. Louis and San Francisco have. Alternatively, the hustle and bustle of the two big cities can make them overwhelming places to live, unlike quiet and idyllic Stamps. Still, Stamps’ prevalent racial violence and oppression does not recommend it to Black Americans searching for freedom and opportunities. Though St. Louis and San Francisco are not strangers to racism, they aren’t as bad as Stamps. These are some of the reasons why Maya develops more during her years in St. Louis and San Francisco.

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