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Free Study Guide for I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: Book Summary

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THEMES


Major Themes

The main theme of the novel is the pain of learning about life, coming-of-age, and accepting oneself. It is the story of one girl’s fight for survival in a cruel world. To make the growing process more difficult, Maya, a near orphan shuttled between people and places, is a victim of sexual, racial, and gender abuse. All her life she searches for love and belonging. She finally finds unexpected peace in early motherhood.

Minor Themes

The novel also deals with themes of racism, sexism, and man’s cruelty to his fellow man as young Maya Angelou comes of age.


MOOD


The mood of the text is both tense and nostalgic. As she looks at her past, the narrator is sometimes frightened, sometimes amused, and sometimes sad. She peppers her narration with adult commentary on the tragedy of being a confused child.

Within the book, there is an entire range of emotions -- from anger and rage to irony and hysteria. In spite of the pain she endures, Maya, as the narrator, is usually upbeat, energetic, and self-evaluating.


Maya Angelou - BIOGRAPHY


Marguerite Ann Johnson (Maya) is a fascinating, talented and diversified woman. She was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the second child of Bailey Johnson and Vivian Baxter Johnson and the younger sister of Bailey, Jr. When her parents divorced in 1931, she was sent to Stamps Arkansas to live with her paternal grandmother, whom she called Momma. A successful businesswoman and a religious fundamentalist, Momma was a strict disciplinarian who taught Maya and Bailey values and respect. Throughout her life, Momma served as a positive influence on Maya.

Maya was a good student who loved to read. She graduated with honors in 1940 from Lafayette County Training School in Arkansas. She then left Stamps and joined her mother in California, where she graduated from Mission High School in 1945. Her son, Clyde Bailey Johnson, was born shortly after graduation.


Maya lived a colorful life and supported her son and herself by dancing in nightclubs, cooking, and doing odd jobs. When she was twenty-two, she met and married a Greek-American sailor, Tosh Angelos, and settled in Los Angeles. The mixed marriage faced many challenges and only a few years. After her grandmother’s death, Maya left her son in Vivian’s care and toured Europe and Africa with the U.S. Department of State Theater Production Company.

Back in America, Maya first lived in California and then moved to New York. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 50’s and began her writing career in earnest. She also performed at San Francisco’s Purple Onion, New York’s Village Vanguard, Chicago’s Mr. Kelly’s, Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, and many off-Broadway theaters. She wrote and produced a play, Cabaret for Freedom, with Godfrey Cambridge.

Maya took a common law husband, Vusumi Make, who was a South African anti-apartheid leader from Johannesburg; they soon moved to Egypt. Although the marriage did not last very long, she remained in Africa and worked as an editor for a weekly Cairo newspaper. When she returned to live in Los Angeles, she was accepted as a black leader. Presidents Ford and Carter appointed her to honorary positions and sought her influence and leadership qualities. Besides writing and acting, Maya lectured extensively. In 1970, she published her first book, the autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It immediately became a bestseller.

In 1973, Maya married Paul Du Feu, an English-born carpenter. After this marriage, she continued to write books, screenplays, short stories, poems, and even music. She also acted and was nominated for an Emmy award for her cameo role in Alex Haley’s Roots. In 1981, after divorcing her third husband, she received the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University.

Maya’s extended family includes her son Guy, grandson Colin Ashanti Murphy-Johnson, her secretary Mildred Garris, friends and colleagues, including Dolly McPherson, Jessica Mitford, Shana Alexander and Rosa Parks. She holds honorary degrees from several universities, including the University of Arkansas, Mills College, Lawrence University, Oberlin College, and others. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and has been a Poet Laureate for the United States.

LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION

American born black writer Maya Angelou is not only an accomplished writer, director producer, autobiographer, singer, songwriter, lyricist, poet, historian, activist and filmmaker, but also a multilingual feminist. She has under her command English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, as well as her own African-Ghanaian dialect, Fanti. She is the author of best-selling works, Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together In My Name and Heart of A Woman. She has also written five collections of poetry: Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, And Still I Rise, I Shall Not be Moved and Shaker Why Don’t You Sing? She has written the original screenplay and musical score for the film Georgia, Georgia, as well as a ten-part television series on African tradition in American life.

Maya Angelou became the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and has received the Ladies Home Journal Woman of the Year Award in Communication. President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the National Commission on the Observance of International Woman’s Year and later President Gerald R. Ford appointed her to the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Advisory Council. She is one of the few women members of the Directors Guild and is on the board of trustees of the American Film Institute. She is the author of the television screenplays for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Sisters. She has written lyrics for the musical King Drum Major For Love and was both host and writer for a series of documentaries called Maya Angelou’s America: A Journey of The Heart along with Guy Johnson.

 

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