Study Guide

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Change

By Maya Angelou


Moving from the house where the family was centered meant absolutely nothing to me. It was simply a small pattern in the grand design of our lives. (10.30)

Because she's been moving her whole life, it just doesn't faze her anymore. If you've ever had to pick up your whole life and move it to another place, you know how scary it can be. But to Maya, it means "absolutely nothing." What do you think—is she jaded? Resigned to her situation? Or just a super laid-back kind of girl?

Teenagers enjoyed revivals as much as adults. They used the night outside meetings to play at courting. The impermanence of a collapsible church added to the frivolity, and their eyes flashed and winked and the girls giggled little silver drops in the dusk while the boys postured and swaggered and pretended not to notice. (18.18)

In Maya's life, not even the church is there to stay. When you know something isn't permanent, it makes it a little easier to try on a new identity—like being a sexy teenage stud.

My sorrow at leaving was confined to a gloom at separating from Bailey for a month (we had never been parted), the imagined loneliness of Uncle Willie (he put on a good face, though at thirty-five he'd never been separated from his mother) and the loss of Louise, my first friend. I wouldn't miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books. (25.23)

Maya's djinn—books—will never leave her side. People and places come and go (and how, for Maya), but you can always hold on to an important feeling. No one can ever take that genius idea for an extra season of Lost away from you.

There were foggy days of unknowing for Bailey and me. It was all well and good to say we would be with our parents, but after all, who were they? Would they be more severe with our didoes than she? That would be bad. Or more lax? Which would be even worse. (26.10)

Which is worse, the devil you don't know or the devil you do? Maya is headed back to be with her parents, which should be comforting, but she has no idea what to expect.

The air of collective displacement, the impermanence of life in wartime and the gauche personalities of the more recent arrivals tended to dissipate my own sense of not belonging. In San Francisco, for the first time, I perceived myself as part of something. (27.8)

Ah, San Francisco—the land where not belonging makes you feel like you belong. This city feels like home to Maya because it, like her, is constantly changing. It's like the opposite of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, where the only thing that changes is his sweaters.

To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, stalled by the South and Southern Black life style, the city was a state of beauty and a state of freedom. (27.10)

She's finally free! Free to do what, we're not sure… but free! What is this freedom, anyway? Is it the ability to do something different from your grandparents? The chance to fight back against the system and become the first black conductorette? Or just a sense of independence?

The world was moving so fast, so much money was being made, so many people were dying in Guam, and Germany, that hordes of strangers became good friends overnight. Life was cheap and death entirely free. (34.4)

Maya isn't alone in her changes—the world is changing right along with her. How does Maya's personal history align with the world history that's going down at the same time?

The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth. (34.43)

Impermanence is fun for a while, but it can get real tough real fast.