The following paper topics are designed to test your understanding of the novel as a whole and to analyze important themes and literary devices. Following each question is a sample outline to help get you started.
Marguerite accomplished many things in the short time Angelou records for us. Which accomplishments do you think are most meaningful to her? Explain each and why it was important.
I. Thesis Statement: Marguerite had many accomplishments in the 16 years recorded in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Three of them are very important: securing a job as a conductorette, graduating from high school, and giving birth.
II. Securing a job as conductorette
A. Was “first Negro on the San Francisco streetcar”
B. Had wanted job and had worked hard to get it
C. Felt had gone against the “system” and won
D. Had controlled her own fate
III. Graduating from high school
A. Had been in many different schools
B. Had a good record
C. Had managed to graduate when pregnant and keep it a secret
D. An achievement—especially for a Black girl at that time in history
IV. Giving birth to baby
A. Had kept it a secret
B. Had finished school
C. Referred to it as a virgin pregnancy
D. Later would say best thing that ever happened to her
Contrast Bailey Johnson, Sr.’s wife (Vivian Baxter Johnson) and his mistress Dolores Stockland. Are they alike in any way? Explain.
(The entire section is 655 words.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.