Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

Jul 27
  1. In many ways this is a bleak book which covers a period notable for the Ku Klux Klan’s constant terrifying presence, poverty, racism and sexism, so it could be easy to see why the motif of a caged bird is used to suggest restraint and the prevention of development, but the title also indicates freedom and expression – the caged bird sings – what elements of it suggest freedom, expression and self worth to you?
  2. How do you feel the strength of women in the novel is dealt with?
  3. How important, and problematic are family relationships particularly with the mother, brother  and grandmother?
  4. What sense does the novel give  you about the historical moment, living conditions, economic and social conditions, cultural politics and power?
  5. There are a couple of horrible moments of overt racism in the novel, one when young Maya fears for her younger brother who hasn’t returned from school and both she and her grandmother know the Klan is operating and could easily capture and kill and young black man alone, and the next when Annie, her grandmother, tries to persuade a local white dentist, who owes her money, to treat Maya. He says he would rather put his hand in a dead dog’s mouth than in that of a ‘nigger’.  How does Angelou deal with these moments both in terms of young Maya’s reactions and in terms of the forms (semi-fictionalised autobiography- a mix of memory, biography, and fiction) she is using here?
  6. Semi-fictionalised autobiography has been seen as a particularly popular form among women writers. What are the main characteristics of this mixture of history, memory, and fiction in your view? How well does it work to bring Maya’s life and the times to light? What are your thoughts about it being something women might find appropriate as a form to read and write?
  7. The novel has been described as both painful and inspirational  to read – do you agree? What elements of these or other responses  has it  developed in you and your reading?


  1. Barbara Schiff

    I found the book easy enough to read fairly
    quickly-not too put off by it being a bit of a “misery memoir” as despite the rape etc some parts were very positive. However I didn’t feel I wanted to read the next book as I did with the Doris Lessing-perhaps because there were so many more to come. I was initially a bit annoyed by her always describing “Black people ” with a capital letter and “white people” with a small but I suppose she was making a point about a “Black nation”. I did feel an admiration for the way she kept going whatever happened.

  2. Mark de Groot

    I suppose the caged bird sings because she really has got something to say. It is said with imagination, intelligence and understanding. And on behalf of many, including young black women ‘caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power’ (p291).

    Agree with Barbara in admiring the ability to keep on going no matter what. Also in finding the book easy to read while not especially motivated to read others in the series…other than perhaps by a slightly dodgy curiosity as to the whos and whys of her future partners.

    I had not heard of Maya Angelou until this week and found the photos and videos compelling, especially of her contribution to Bill Clinton’s inaugural and TV interview after the election of Obama.

    Lastly, did anyone else think that there was more to be said about the second generation Japanese-Americans who disappearance from civic life in California after Pearl Harbour created some space and opportunity for others?

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