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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Discussion Topic

Main conflict and protagonist in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Summary:

The main conflict in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou's struggle against racism, trauma, and personal insecurity. The protagonist is Maya Angelou herself, as the book is an autobiographical account of her early life, detailing her challenges and growth from a young, insecure girl into a self-possessed and confident woman.

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What is the main conflict in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

There are various conflicts throughout I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. One which every reader remembers is the abuse and rape of the author by her mother's partner, Mr. Freeman. Another is the fight between Marguerite and Dolores, which leads to the former sleeping in a junkyard for a month. While these conflicts are undoubtedly memorable and powerful, the conflict that pervades the book, making an appearance in almost every chapter, is the conflict between the author—as well as the wider Black community in which she lives—and white America.

The small town of Stamps, in which most of the story takes place, is so completely segregated that, on a normal day, a person from one race would not even catch a glimpse of anyone from the other. However, there is always the danger of hostile incursions. Early in the book, a white woman is attacked, and the Ku Klux Klan decide to take revenge against any Black man they can find. Uncle Willie has to hide for fear of his life, despite the fact that he could not possibly have been the attacker. On another occasion, Marguerite has severe toothache, but the only dentist in town is white, and he says that he would sooner put his hand "in a dog’s mouth than in a n----r’s." Such injuries and insults abound throughout the text, constantly reminding the reader of the racial conflict which plagues the author.

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Who is the protagonist in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

Written by American writer and poet, Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography about Maya’s childhood living as a young black girl in the South. The book begins when Maya is three years old and living with her older brother, Bailey, her grandmother, and her disabled uncle in Stamps, Arkansas. It follows her as she moves around, living at times in the cities of St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The book ends when Maya is sixteen years old and has become a mother. As such, Maya Angelou—named Marguerite Ann Johnson at birth—is the protagonist of the book.

Maya has an incredibly tough life. Abandoned by her parents, she lives with her grandmother until she is seven. Her grandmother is a caring woman, but Maya encounters racism and discrimination from the white community. When she is seven, Maya and Bailey go to live with their mother in St. Louis. Their mother sings in a nightclub, and, when Maya is molested by her mother’s boyfriend, she and Bailey are sent back to live with their grandmother. Then, during a visit to her father, Maya is stabbed by his girlfriend. She runs away and ends up homeless and living in a car lot. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings charts Maya’s experiences as she grows, learns to love who she is, and develops into a strong and kind young woman.

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