Synopses & Reviews
Here is a book as joyous and painful, and as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou's first memoir, published in 1969 is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.
Sent by their mother to their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” When she journeys at eight to her mother's side in St. Louis, she is attacked by a man many times her age. Years later, in San Francisco, she learns about love for herself — and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. The kindness of others, Maya's own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
Poetic and powerful — now in a beautiful keepsake edition — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds as long as people read.
“More than a tour de force of language or the story of childhood suffering....A summary of the incidents cannot do this book justice; one has to read it to appreciate its sensitivity and life.” Newsweek
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.” James Baldwin
“A beautiful book — an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time....Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative.” Kirkus Reviews
“Simultaneously touching and comic.” The New York Times
“A heroic and beautiful book.” Cleveland Plain Dealer
Superbly told, with the poet's gift for language and observation, Angelou's autobiography of her childhood in Arkansas — a world of which most Americans are ignorant.
About the Author
Poet, writer, performer, teacher, and director, Maya Angelou was raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and then moved to San Francisco. In addition to her bestselling autobiographies, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she has also written a cookbook, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, and five poetry collections, including I Shall Not Be Moved and Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?
Reading Group Guide
1. Maya Angelou begins her autobiography with a moment of public humiliation in church. Why do you think she chose this scene in particular? Do themes in this scene reappear throughout the memoir?
2. To Marguerite, her mother seems alternately charming, elusive, unreliable and strong. Which episodes in the novel illuminate her character? Do you think she was a good mother?
3. Mrs. Flowers “encouraged [Marguerite] to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations” (100). What are some of the maxims that Angelou remembers hearing from Momma and Mother? Did any of these maxims strike a particular chord with you? Are there examples of “mother wit” that you remember from your own childhood, or pass on to those around you?
4. Angelou describes Marguerite as “superstitious” (166). Can you find some examples of Marguerites superstition?
5. How does Angelou describe her molestation and later her rape at the hands of Mr. Freeman? Were you surprised by her emotions? Was this terrible experience the defining moment of the novel or of Angelous childhood? Why or why not?
6. “Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being ‘called out of his name” (109), and when Mrs. Cullinan renames her “Mary,” she exacts her revenge. Can you think of other examples of naming and renaming in the book? What do you think it means to be “called out of [ones] name”?
7. What did you think of the relationship between Glory and Mrs. Cullinan?
8. “I couldnt force myself to think of them as people,” (26) Angelou writes of the whites in segregated Stamps, Arkansas. Does this change over the course of the novel?
9. How is Marguerites identity as a Black woman variously shaped by her own and others interactions with whites, including the “powhitetrash children” (28), middle class whites like Mrs. Cullinan and the sheriff, and Northern whites such as the employees of the Market Street Railway Company? Do you think that Marguerite is more powerfully affected by her own interactions or by the interactions she observes?
10. As the granddaughter of a comparatively poor businesswoman, Marguerites understanding of the world is shaped as much by class experience as by race. Can you think of some examples of class distinctions or inversions in the novel?
11. What are some of the communities that welcome Marguerite during her childhood? Which communities nurture her successfully? Which are less successful?
12. “He was my first white love,” (13) Angelou says of Shakespeare, but most of her teachers are Black. How does Angelou describe her education, both formal and informal? What lessons does she learn from those around her?
13. “We survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets,” (184) Angelou says of Black people. Do you think that this is true of all cultures?
14. The title is a reference to a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Why do you think that Angelou chose this title?