Maya Angelou recounts her coming of age story as a mature but apprehensive girl in the American South and California during the Jim Crow era.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” Dunbar uses the experiences of a caged to bird to discuss the oppression of African Americans.
This poem inspired the title of Maya Angelou’s memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Paul Laurence Dunbar uses the symbol of a bird that still sings even though it is caged to depict the oppression of Black people in a racist America. Introduce this poem to students before reading the novel. Pair I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with “Sympathy,” and ask students to draw connections between Maya’s character and the bird in the poem as they read the first few pages of the book. How does Maya feel “caged”? How does she “sing” like the bird in the poem in spite of her constraints?
In “The Scottsboro Boys,” Jessica McBirney discusses the historic event in which nine black boys were wrongfully accused and convicted of assault.
This case exemplifies the lack of justice for African Americans and the racial social hierarchy in America during the Jim Crow era. Have students read this text after the episode in chapter three in which Uncle Willie has to hide from white men set to punish a black man who allegedly “messed with” a white woman. Pair I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with “The Scottsboro Boys,” and ask students to compare and contrast this case with the hunt for black men described in chapter 3. Why does Uncle Willie have to hide? What does the Scottsboro case and the case in the novel reveal about race relations during the Jim Crow era?
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was an influential African American poet, the son of freed slaves, and friend of Frederick Douglass. In “We Wear the Mask,” Dunbar introduces the idea of hiding behind a metaphorical mask.
This famous poem is about the tendency of oppressed black Americans to conceal their pain and suffering in post-Civil War America. Dunbar describes the figurative mask that black people often wear in the presence of white people to survive racial prejudice. Pair I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with “We Wear the Mask,” and ask students to analyze Momma’s response to the white girls in the store who disrespect Momma in chapter 5. How does Maya feel about Momma’s reaction to their behavior? What is the difference in social status between an adult black woman and an adolescent white girl? To what extent is Momma wearing a mask?
“Self-Concept” introduces several psychology concepts that describe how people think about themselves.
McLeod analyzes how social roles, comparison with others, and other factors determine how someone feels about themselves. Have students read this text after reading chapter four when Maya discusses how people call her ugly, and how her brother Bailey always defends her. Pair I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with “Self-Concept,” and ask students to use Rogers’s theory to analyze how young Maya perceives herself in relation to those around her.
This article from National Public Radio reports on the life and success of Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, an American author, educator, prominent scholar, and one of the first black women to earn a doctoral degree in United States history.
Cooper was a proponent of African Americans achieving progress through intellectuality. Introduce this text after reading chapter 15, in which Mrs. Flowers encourages Maya to speak by having her read poems. Pair I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with “A Child of Slavery Who Taught A Generation,” and ask students to compare Cooper and Mrs. Flowers’ philosophies on education as a vehicle for freedom from oppression. What claims about the role of education would both women agree with?
This informational text explains how the murder of Emmett Till helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.
Have students read this text after reading chapter 25, in which Bailey witnesses a group of white men pulling a dead black man out of the lake and is forced to help them put the body into a wagon. Pair I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with “Emmett Till,” and ask students to discuss what Bailey sees and why Momma takes Bailey and Maya to California. How does the lynching of Emmett Till and the lynching in the novel impact how African Americans feel about race relations? How do the lynchings in both texts affect the way African Americans perceive their status in society? How do these stories depict the sociopolitical climate of the Jim Crow era?
The informational text, “Japanese Relocation during World War II,” discusses the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.
Japanese Americans were displaced from their homes on the West Coast of the United States to relocation centers. Introduce this text before reading chapter 27 to provide background on Japanese internment. Maya discusses how the Japanese were displaced in San Francisco by the government, and how black people replaced them in the city. Pair I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with “Japanese Relocation during World War II,” and ask students to compare the oppression of black people that Angelou describes throughout the book with her observations of Japanese displacement.
In “Mother to Son,” a mother utilizes metaphor to communicate the struggles she's faced and the importance of perseverance to her son.
The poem reveals a parent’s vulnerability in the presence of her child. Have students read this poem after reading chapter 33, in which Bailey leaves home and disobeys his mother. Pair I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with “Mother to Son,” and ask students to compare how Vivian and the mother in this poem both try to prepare their sons for the difficulties of life. What similar message do they convey to their sons? Why is Bailey so angry with Vivian? How does the crystal stair in this poem connect to Vivian’s abandonment of her children?
This informational text discusses the different forms of peaceful protests that civil rights activists employed during their struggle for equality.
Have students read this text after reading the passage in chapter 34 in which Maya relentlessly addresses the racist hiring policies of the transportation system. Pair I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with “The Sit-In Movement,” and ask students to evaluate Maya’s own sit-in protest. To what extent is a sit-in an effective form of protest?