Study Help Essay Questions


1. Contrast Bailey and Maya Johnson in terms of their coping skills. Make additional contrasts between the older and younger generations, particularly Grandmother Baxter's method of orchestrating her family's murder of a rapist, Momma Henderson's stoicism in the face of three young hecklers, and Vivian's response to being called a bitch.

2. Explain how and why Vivian and Daddy Bailey seem oblivious to Maya's childhood sufferings and insecurity. Discuss the effects of undeserved exile on both children.

3. Compare Angelou's depiction of Southern culture with that of Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, James Agee, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, George Washington Cable, Shirley Ann Grau, Ellen Gilchrist, Paul Green, Zora Neale Hurston, Donald Davidson, and other Southern writers.

4. Discuss autobiography as an art form. Contrast Angelou's approach to personal narrative with Joy Adamson's Born Free, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Frederick Douglass' Narrative Of the Life of Frederick Douglass, George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," Lorraine Hansberry's To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Linda Brent's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks, Dick Gregory's Nigger, and Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi.

5. Relate the Maya character's response to rape to current findings about victim dysfunction, loss of speech, refusal to testify, blaming the victim, guilt, irrational fears, and other long-term reactions. Discuss the efficacy of Maya's return to her grandmother and to literature. Explain why the image of the caged bird epitomizes her situation.

6. Compare the Maya character as protagonist with the fictional Vyry in Phyllis Walker's Jubilee, Ruth in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, O-lan in Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, or Celie in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Comment on their victimization by strong or tyrannical male figures and their need for approval and acceptance as women and mothers.

7. Contrast the film version of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with other cinematic studies of the rural South, such as Conrack, Huny Sundown, Song of the South, Sounder The Color Purple, Mandingo, Band of Angels, Gone with the Wind, The Foxes of Harrow, Raintree County, Tobacco Road, Pinky, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and Roots. Comment on depictions of black/white relationships, particularly over broad economic, educational, and social disparities.

8. Comment on Angelou's view of women and their ability to cope with poverty, hunger, sickness, rejection, powerlessness, alienation, job discrimination, self-criticism, and social ostracism. Compare her views on female strengths with those in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Craven's I Heard the Owl Call My Name, Jeane Houston's Farewell to Manzanar, Scott O'Dell's The Island of the Blue Dolphins, Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, and Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker.

9. Contrast the lifestyle of Stamps, Arkansas, with that of St. Louis, Ensenada, and San Francisco. Comment on opportunities for nonwhites, including the Japanese-Americans who are interned during World War II, women at the cantina near Ensenada, and the pickers who buy supplies at Annie's store.

10. Supply an overview of the improvement in civil rights from 1930 to the present. List influential nonwhites, particularly sports figures, entertainers, political and religious leaders, inventors and scientists, writers, journalists, and educators.

11. Discuss cultural influences on Bailey Junior and Maya, especially comic strips, children's and classic literature, sports figures, and religious fundamentalism.

12. Support or refute Angelou's statement that "every student should be encouraged to read everything in a catholic sense."

13. Contrast the female characters in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with those of the poem "Our Grandmothers" from Angelou's I Shall Not Be Moved.

14. Discuss Angelou's comment in Ebony magazine in February 1982: "Black people . . . comprehend the South. We understand its weight. It has rested on our backs. We recognize its violence. We have been its victim. We acknowledge its history. It was first written with our blood." Apply her experience to that of other successful black Southerners, such as Andrew Young, Madame Sarah Walker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ida Wells-Barnett, James Weldon Johnson, Jesse Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ernest Gaines, Medgar Evers, Mary McLeod Bethune, Margaret Walker, Rosa Parks, Barbara Jordan, and Louis Armstrong.

15. Explicate William Henley's "Invictus" and Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 and describe their effect on the Maya character. Apply significant phrases to her evolving selfhood. Explain what quality or characteristic causes her to survive and excel.