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Themes

Maya is black. Seems simple enough, right? Not so much. Racism is the cage around the caged bird, and it means not getting jobs, not getting medical treatment, and even the risk of lynching. The incidents of racism in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are illogical and seem at first like insurmountable obstacles. But by the end of the book, our main squeeze learns how to fight back in her own way. Standing on the shoulders of black women before her, Maya is able to lay the path for the Civil Rights Movement to come.

Questions About Race

  • Is racism more of an issue for Maya than sexism? How are the two related? 
  • How do Maya's family members experience and react to racism? Do different races interact differently in Stamps and St. Louis?
  • When race and racism appear, is it only between black and white people? What about when the Japanese people disappear from San Francisco in Chapter 27? What about Maya's experience in Mexico? How are these experiences of racism different from white-black racism?
  • In the prologue, Angelou writes, "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult" (Prologue.11). What do you think she means by this? 

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Racism is the biggest obstacle that Maya faces in her childhood—even more than sexism or poverty.

Even though many black people resent the impact of racism on their lives, they don't do much to change things.

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