I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Notes

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Notes

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Notes

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Notes


The original CliffsNotes study guides offer expert commentary on major themes, plots, characters, literary devices, and historical background.


  • Life and Background of the Author
  • Introduction to the Novel
  • List of Characters
  • Critical Commentaries
  • Critical Analysis
  • Critical Essays
  • Essay Topics and Review Questions
  • Selected Bibliography

    Piqued by a dare, Angelou approached her first book as an exercise in autobiography as art, a literary achievement which, according to Random House editor Robert Loomis, is virtually impossible. Determined to transcend facts with truth, she concentrates on the Maya character’s rationale and thought processes that presaged her adult character, both as woman and survivor. Disclosing her version of the black female’s victimization by prejudice and powerlessness, as though creating a fictional character, she champions Maya’s ability to compensate for displacement, disparagement, lack of stability, and savagely truncated self-worth. Through a tournament list of crises, young Maya moves from near-orphanhood to a rebirth of self, complete with a generous perception of worth and dignity. The circuitous pilgrimage in search of unconditional belonging ends with motherhood, ironically the failed source which precipitated Maya’s soulful odyssey.

  • Excerpt

    The tall, vibrant, gifted daughter of divorced parents who lives with her paternal grandmother in the racist, unreconstructed milieu of Stamps, Arkansas. Delighting in books, which appeal to her braininess and provide escape from tedium, rigidity, and unfairness that permeate her world, Maya survives rape, but exists under an aura of guilt. Unable to bond with her flamboyant father or to mediate between her willful mother and equally willful brother, Maya copes haphazardly with familial unrest, often at the expense of peace of mind. Her coming of age, marked by doubts about the normalcy of her incipient womanhood, ends with the birth of a son, with whom she finally rediscovers a feeling of wholeness.

    Bailey “Ju” Johnson, Junior

    Maya’s small, intense, well-read older brother, who protects and cheers her during the worst of their Stamps internment. Adept at stealing pickles from the barrel, imitating ludicrous church scenarios, and inveigling young girls into his backyard tent, Bailey remains the focal point of Maya’s loyalty, the mooring to which she clings when threatened by an unstable and sometimes hostile environment. On his departure from home, he lovingly offers to care for Maya if she chooses to come along. At sea with the Merchant Marines, he remains in close contact with his sister, particularly during her pregnancy.

    Momma Henderson

    Former wife of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Henderson, and Mr. Murphy, Sister Annie Henderson, for twenty-five years the lone black female entrepreneur of Stamps, Arkansas, tackles daily jobs with biblical ardor and determination and never answers “questions directly put to her on any subject except religion.” Eking a Depression Era living by selling fried meat pies and lemonade to local sawmill and cotton mill workers, she accepts government-issue powdered eggs and milk and canned fish in trade for store items, thereby maintaining solvency during hard times. Although poor in worldly goods and bereft of power, Annie is rich in the esteem of local people, both black and white.

    Daddy Bailey Johnson

    A sanguine, conceited man vain enough to send his exiled children his picture as a Christmas gift. Speaking affected but proper English, Big Bailey, a former doorman at the Breakers Hotel in Santa Monica and later a dietician at a naval hospital in southern California, looms larger than Maya can take in. A definite contrast to his stuttering, crippled brother and to the “peasants of Arkansas,” Bailey serves temporarily as hero and rescuer after Dolores knifes Maya in the side. Failing his string of promises to Dolores, he marries Alberta.

    Vivian Baxter

    Affectionately known as Bibbie, Vivian, who is “Mother Dear” to her children, captivates Maya with her bold red lipstick, white teeth, Lucky Strikes, and “fresh-butter color [that] looked see-through clean.” Not too prim to bash in Pat Patterson’s head with a police club or shoot a two-timing business partner with her .32, she is the most lighthearted of the grim, vindictive Baxters and covers her criminal acts with a nonchalant charm, fairness, and gaiety that bobs this side of reality, walling her off from guilt at sending her children away during crucial stages of their lives. Trained as a nurse, she earns her living “cutting poker games in gambling parlors,” sometimes to the detriment of her children.

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