I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

Study Questions

Introductory Pages & Chapters 1-5

  1. What did Marguerite hope the made-over lavender dress would do for her?
  2. How do you think Marguerite feels about being an African American?
  3. Why did the children’s parents send them to Stamps, Ark.?
  4. What is the guiding force in Momma’s life?
  5. How does Marguerite describe the cotton-pickers’ lives?
  6. How does Marguerite feel about Uncle Willie?  How is he related to her?
  7. Do you think Momma’s dislike for white writers reflects prejudice against whites?
  8. How do you know that Marguerite has a good deal of self-discipline for a small child?
  9. How is opening the front door of the Store like “pulling the ribbon off the unexpected gift”?
  10. Why did Uncle Willie hide in the vegetable bin?
  11. Describe Bailey. Include Marguerite’s feelings about him.
  12. Would you describe Stamps as integrated or segregated? How do Bailey and Marguerite regard “whitefolksville”?
  13. What are Momma’s two most important rules?  Are these good rules to live by for children today?
  14. Why does Momma “keep her cool” so well when she is being aped by the “powhitetrash” girls?  How does witnessing this incident affect Marguerite?
  15. Why is it important to Marguerite to rake the yard after the girls leave?


Chapters 6-10

  1. Why do the children loathe Reverent Thomas so much?
  2. Briefly describe the incidents that occur with Sister Monroe in church. Were you overcome with “the giggles” as you read this chapter?
  3. What is meant by the “fine line between humor and hysteria”?
  4. Why was the judge from Pine Bluff so surprised when he saw “Mrs. Henderson”? Why has the story become legend in Stamps?
  5. Why did it take so long for the Depression to affect the African-American population of Stamps?
  6. Why do the children have such negative reactions to receiving Christmas presents from their parents?
  7. What is Marguerite’s reaction to her father?
  8. With what illegal activities is Grandmother Baxter involved?  What do you think Momma would say about the situation?
  9. How does the children’s lifestyle in St. Louis differ from the one they were accustomed to in Stamps?
  10. How does the St. Louis school compare with that in Stamps?
  11. What are the children’s uncles like?
  12. How do Marguerite and her mother get along?
  13. Who is Mr. Freeman? How does he feel about “Mother Dear”?


Chapters 11-15

1.     How does Marguerite’s feeling of “I didn’t come to stay” affect her behavior while she is in St. Louis?

2.     Why do you think Bibbi decided to live with Me. Freeman? Why does Marguerite compare her pity for him to that felt for the pigs being fattened for the slaughter?

3.     How did Marguerite find herself in an abusive situation? Was her mother irresponsible in trusting Mr. Freeman to sleep in the same bed with her daughter?

4.     Why didn’t Marguerite tell her mother the truth of what Mr. Freeman did? Had she really understood what Mr. Freeman had done? Why didn’t she feel lonely “for the encasement of his big arms”?

5.     Why do you think Marguerite escaped into reading?

6.     What do you think Mother and Mr. Freeman argued about the night of the rape?

7.     What are some of the feelings Marguerite had after the rape. In addition to Mr. Freeman’s threats, what other reasons did she have for not wanting her mother and Bailey to find out what had happened?

8.     How does Bailey reassure his sister? Is she foolish to believe him?

9.     Why did Marguerite feel so guilty about Freeman’s death?

10.    What was comforting to Marguerite about the resignation of the people in Stamps?

11.   What was meant by the advice “Be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy”?

12.   How does Mrs. Flowers come to Marguerite’s rescue emotionally?


Chapters 16-20

1.     Why was Marguerite sent to work at Mrs. Cullinan’s

2.     Why did she break Mrs. Cullinan’s favorite china? Was she justified?

3.     Why did Bailey stay in town so late? Why was he depressed?

4.     What is Marguerite’s feeling about the portrayal of Blacks in the Kay Francis movie? Do you think Blacks are portrayed accurately in television and movies today?

5.     What does the author note about standard of living and its relationship to God’s will?

6.     Why were the exhausted cotton-pickers anxious to attend the revival meeting?

7.     Who does the preacher mean when he refers to “Charity”?

8.     What compassion does the author make between the revival meeting and the activities at Miss Grace’s house?

9.     Why is it so important to the people at the Store that Joe Louis win the fight they are listening to on the radio?

10.   Explain the last sentence of Chapter 19.

11.   Explain: “…after being a woman for three years, I was about to become a girl.”

12.   Why do you think Marguerite thinks of love as a treacherous, hateful word?

13.   Why did Tommy Valdon finally stop paying attention to Marguerite?


Chapters 21-23

  1. Who was Joyce?
  2. What did Bailey learn from Joyce?  What did Marguerite learn?
  3. What do you find ironic about chapter 21?
  4. Whar were Marguerite’s feelings about Florida Taylor’s funeral?
  5. How does the weather heighten the atmosphere for the story told by Mr. Taylor?
  6. How is the white school different from the Lafayette Country Training School? How are the black graduates different than the white?
  7. Why is Marguerite proud of herself at the beginning of Chapter 23?
  8. On graduation night, what is the first clue that the ceremony will be a disappointment?
  9. Why is Marguerite so upset by Edward Donleavy’s speech?  What would she have preferred for him to talk about?
  10. How did Henry Reed bring a feeling of redemption to the graduates and the members of the audience?
  11. Why does the author call the entire human species “an abomination” (page 153)?


Chapters 24-28

  1. If you could talk to Dr. Lincoln, what would say?
  2. How does Marguerite’s imagined version of Momma’s conversation with the dentist differ from what actually happened?
  3. What incident prompts Momma to get the children’s out of stamp? Do you think she made the right decision?
  4.  Considering what you know about Momma and the children’s mother, Vivian Baxter, how do you think the two women got along?  Do you image Momma was relieved to get back to Stamps-or did she wish she could stay in California?
  5. Why did San Francisco change so much at the beginning of World War II. Why do you think the Blacks were so willing to profit from the displacement of the Japanese?
  6. Compare Marguerite’s experiences at the neighborhood girls’ school, at George Washington High School, and at the California Labor School.
  7. Who was Miss Kirwin? Was she a good teacher? Did she treat students fairly?


Chapters 29-31

1.     Why is Daddy Clidell important to Marguerite?

2.     The Black con-men in Chapter 29 feel that anything they take from the white man is their just due. Do you agree with that philosophy?

3.     How are Marguerite and her classmates “bi-lingual”?

4.     Describe Daddy Bailey’s girlfriend.

5.     What excuse does Daddy Bailey make for his frequent trips to Mexico?

6.     Why is Marguerite so pleased when her father invites her to go to Mexico with him?

7.     Explain what is meant by, “How maddening it was to have been born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur”(page 1970

8.     Why does Marguerite end up driving the car?

9.     Does the conflict between Dolores and Marguerite become resolved in a satisfactory way? Do their problems remind you of any you have experienced or know about?

10.   Why doesn’t Marguerite simply go back to her mother’s?


Chapters 32-36

  1. What does Marguerite gain from living in the junkyard?
  2. Does it seem strange that no one seems to wonder where Marguerite was for a month?  What would be the reaction of most fathers if their daughter disappeared?
  3. Why does Bailey decide to move out?  Is Mother supportive of his decision? Is Marguerite?
  4. How is Marguerite treated when she goes to the Market Street Railway Company to apply for a job?  Why do you think she kept going back?
  5. What is meant by, “I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware”?
  6. Reread the last two paragraphs of chapter 34. Is the plight of Black females still the same today—or have things changed?
  7. Why is Marguerite, at 16, worried about her sexual orientation? Is this a question which occurs to most teenagers?
  8. What prompts Marguerite to invite one of the handsome brothers to be intimate with her? What is the result?
  9. Why does Marguerite to wait so long to tell her mother about the pregnancy?
  10. How do Vivian Baxter and Daddy Clidell react to Marguerite’s news?
  11. What feelings does Marguerite have when her son is born?
  12. React to: “If you are for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.”  Would you consider this good advice for living?


Special thanks to Mrs. K’s work study girls, M.H. and T.R. for typing this!