For your banned book club: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive, racist language, disrespect for adult authority, and sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes, including a rape. As recently as 2002, it was challenged as required reading for Hamilton, Montana freshman English classes because of the author’s depiction of teen sexuality and homosexuality.

Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns all clean.  – Maya Angelou

Who is this Maya Angelou?

  • Born April 4, 1928 in Saint Louis, Missouri as Marguerite Johnson.
  • Father, Bailey Johnson, naval dietician, Mother, Vivian Johnson and one sibling, brother Bailey.
  • Parents divorced when Angelou was three; children sent to live with grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.
  • Angelou claims grandmother, whom she called “momma, had a deep-brooding love that hung over everything she touched.”
  • After five years, children were sent to Saint Louis to be with mother. There, Angelou was raped by mother’s boyfriend, causing her to become silent for nearly five years.
  • Sent back to Stamps, where Mrs. Flowers helped her to recover.
  • In 1940, she and brother were sent to San Francisco to live with mother again. She ran away to join her father and his girlfriend.
  • Still unhappy, she moved to a graveyard of wrecked cars housing homeless children.
  • Angelou became pregnant; at sixteen gave birth to her son, Guy.
  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s first literary work, an autobiography.
  • Book challenged by Alabama State Textbook Committee in 1983 as “dangerous” because it “preaches bitterness and hatred against whites.”
  • Book’s title is taken from her own poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, whose title is taken from a line in Laurence Dunbar poem, “Sympathy”.

What do you think about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

  1. How does Ritie feel about her place in the world? Why?  Can the average teenager relate to this?  Why or why not?
  2. 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”?
  3. Angelou 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 does this mean?  Why?
  4. Throughout the book, Ritie struggles with feelings that she is “bad” and “sinful.” What does she conclude at the end of the memoir about right and wrong? What do you think about her ideas?
  5. How does the book’s title relate to Ritie’s self-imposed muteness?
  6. Who are positive role models for Maya?
  7. What makes Maya vulnerable to Mr. Freeman’s sexual advances? How does the rape and Mr. Freeman’s death influence her throughout the rest of the book?
  8. How was the experience of rural southern blacks different from that of black people in San Francisco?  Why?  What is the effect of that difference on Ritie?
  9. Is Angelou a reliable narrator? To what extent does her own memory seem to distort her story? Would the story seem different if it were fictional?
  10. How would you respond to adults who want to protect teens from reading this book?

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