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

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Maya derives the title for her autobiographical tale from a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. It is an appropriate title, for Maya effectively portrays images of restrained freedom through the book. In spite of her imprisonment to life, caused by being poor, black, and female, Maya still learns "to sing" or succeed in life.

Maya’s language, which is largely that of a young girl, is touching in its simplicity; but it is also filled with rich and dazzling images that effectively capture both the joy and suffering of her childhood. Maya uses a variety of techniques to characterize and bring to life her past. Her memoirs are recorded in a naturalistic manner using anecdotes, dialectical variations, Biblical allusions, and other literary styles. Her language is appealing not only because of its attention to detail but also because of the use of comic relief.


ad hoc - put together casually; improvised

adios - Spanish word for goodbye

arabesque - a graceful stance in ballet

bonita - Spanish word for pretty

borracho - Spanish word for drunk

Brazos - a river in Texas

cat-o-nine-tails - a leather whip with knotted strands, meant to hurt the victim and leave marks on his body

cater-cornered - on the diagonal

clabbered milk - milk that has soured and curdled

Como esta usted? - How are you? in Spanish

coq au vin - a French dish in which chicken is served in a wine sauce

cotelette Milanese - a French dish in which the chicken breast is pounded thin, coated with crumbs, and baked in a butter sauce

cracker - a negative slang word used by blacks to describe bigoted whites

djinn - a spirit whose purpose is to help humans

Donde esta mi padre? - Where is my father? in Spanish

Donde vas? - Where are you going? in Spanish

esposita - Spanish word for young bride

fo’ bits - fifty cents

Gladstone - a type of luggage

gracias - Spanish word for thank you

juice harp (Jew’s harp) - a musical instrument that is held between the teeth and vibrated to make twangy tones

juju - a type of magic

liniment - an ointment used to treat strains and sprains

mercados - Mexican markets

mourner’s bench - the front row in the church that is reserved for people who are suffering from problems and need special prayers

mumbledypeg - a game where the participants flip a knife trying to make it stick into the ground

nina, la - little girl

padre - Spanish work for father

paisano - Spanish word for peasant

pedal pushers - a style of women’s pants that stop at mid-calf

Pig Latin - a supposedly secret language for children, where they put the initial consonant plus ay at the end of every syllable of a word. Spoken rapidly, Pig Latin can be hard to decipher. For example, "come fast" would be said "omecay astfay" in Pig Latin.

pince-nez - small eyeglasses that are used for seeing things up close and that are worn on the end of the nose.

pobrecita - Spanish word meaning poor little thing

policias - Spanish word for police officers

pollo en salsa verde - a Mexican dish in which the chicken is cooked and covered in a green chili sauce

Que tiene? Que pasa? Que quiere? - What do you have? What’s happening? What do you want? in Spanish

Quien es? - Who is this? in Spanish

risco - Spanish word for cliff

Rye-al-toh - the mispronunciation of a movie theater that is really the Rialto, named after an ornate bridge in Venice, Italy

senoritas - Spanish word for young, unmarried women

six bits - seventy-five cents

teenincy - a slang work for tiny

tithe - 10% of a person’s income, which is supposed to be given back to the Lord in appreciation for His many gifts

Zapata - a well-known 19 th century Mexican revolutionary


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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Free BookNotes
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