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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Essay Introduction

  • 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.

  • The title, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, evokes a feeling of muffled hope. The reader can easily relate to the metaphor of a caged bird that moves on through life and tries to make the best of it. Although Maya Angelou had a life containing vulgarity and ugliness, she rose above her unfortunate situation and lived her life to the fullest. She continued on after being raped, being stabbed by her stepmother, and even becoming a teenage mother. The adversity gave her strength, and the diversity of family and environment resulted in her knowledge of the world and people around her. The most contrasting people in her life were her grandmother, Momma, and her mother, Mother Dear.

    Momma was the epitome of a southern African-American woman. Maya once said, “Bailey, by the way” (102), and Momma told her she had committed a sin and prayed immediately for God to “forgive this child” (103). Her explanation to Maya of the outburst was that, “Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light” and anyone who says “by the way” is really saying, “by Jesus,” or “by God” and the Lord’s name would not be taken in vain in her house” (103). Momma routinely went to church every Sunday, making sure to dress up accordingly and have the Sunday dinner ready for the pastor if he happened to be in town. Momma was a highly regarded woman who was referred to as “Mrs.” (48) which was unusual for a African-American to be called, and she had tried to be a usual, southern, God-fearing wife, but she married a total of three times and never found the right one. She also kept to the old ways and did not talk freely about whites. If she did bring white people into a conversation she would refer to them as “they” (47). Momma is, without a doubt, highly conservative. She considers herself a realist because of the fact that she does not go against the whites. She rationalizes reality is that whites are in control, and in fighting against the most powerful, she will most likely than not, fail and ruin herself and her family. Momma manages a strict house filled with necessary routine and control. She wanted the kids to set examples for the rest and often “sent [Maya and Bailey] to her bedroom with warnings to have [their] Sunday school lesson perfectly memorized or [they] knew what [they] could expect” (36). Maya learned discipline from Momma’s tough love. Momma continually showed extensive care for everything she became involved in, especially church, her town, and Maya and Bailey’s well being.

    Mother Dear was a loose idealist with a nursing degree, but she chose to work at gambling parlors. Maya said it was “twenty years before [she] saw [Mother Dear] in a nursing uniform” (70) because she needed more glamour in her life that just a “straight eight-to-five” (70) job. She was a “fly by the seat of her pants” kind of person, who obviously loved taking chances have having continuous change in her life as opposed to routine. Maya said that she “never saw [Mother Dear] in the house” (64). Mother Dear liked to be “out and about”, keeping busy, making money, and having fun. Mother Dear made Bailey and Maya’s lives easy by giving them “a room with a two-sheeted bed, plenty to eat and store-bought clothes to wear” (68). Bailey and Maya barely even had chores to do which was quite a change from Momma. Mother Dear preferred to live her life freely and without being tied down, as she was never married. Mother Dear loved the kids and “was competent in providing for [them] – even if it meant getting someone else to furnish the provisions” (70). Mother Dear was a genuinely caring person, especially for Maya and Bailey, Jr., but she was not in real control of the situation from day to day and basically gave them the necessities for living and then left them to their own accord.

    Mother Dear and Momma are differing in most aspects of their lives, but they do hold the same feelings about being independent women, caring for Bailey and Maya, and being strong in everything they do, however opposite their goals may be. Wearing lipstick or not, making the kids do many chores or not, are in the end, going to be much more petty issues than holding strong beliefs and being independent.

    Maya Angelou had to show these two important people as part of her life because without them she would not be the person she is today. Mother Dear and Momma’s different opinions gave Maya the ability to see both perspectives, both sides of the story, and make her own judgment on the event, belief or feeling. Her need to show how religious Momma was and then to show how loose and lipstick-wearing Mother Dear had been essentially was meant to inform the reader and give them a complete picture of what Maya’s life was like and the reasoning behind her actions and thoughts.

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