Suggested Essay Topics
Last Updated on July 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1812
1. The narrator describes herself at various points in the Preface. Give a written description of the narrator. Do you think the narrator has a positive self-image? Explain.
2. The narrator fantasizes during the Preface. What are some of her fantasies?
1. The setting is an important part of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Describe the Store in the morning. What smells, sights, etc. are there? Contrast this with a store opening in this day and time.
2. Contrast the pickers in the morning and in the evening.
1. Describe Uncle Willie’s teaching methods. How do his methods differ from those of a typical elementary school teacher? How are they the same?
2. Angelou uses a young child to reveal Uncle Willie to the reader. What does she tell the reader about Uncle Willie? Describe the tragedy of Willie’s lameness as told through Marguerite. Can a young, innocent narrator present an accurate picture of Uncle Willie? Explain your answer.
1. Marguerite performed many tasks about the Store and home. Why would Marguerite consider feeding the pigs one of the worst of the chores? Do you think that Marguerite during the Depression had to assume more responsibilities than children today? Explain your answer.
2. Mr. Steward came to tell the family to hide Uncle Willie. Why was Marguerite angry at Mr. Steward about this? Describe hiding Uncle Willie. What was Uncle Willie’s reaction to the hiding? Why do you think that Uncle Willie behaved in this manner?
1. Marguerite and Bailey have the same parents and are growing up together. What similarities do you see between the two characters? What are the contrasts that you see?
2. Marguerite presents the reader with a look at the segregated Stamps of the 1930s. Describe Stamps as it was when Marguerite was growing up there. What differences would you expect to find there more than half a century later?
1. Describe Mrs. Henderson’s encounter with the powhitetrash. Why do you think Mrs. Henderson behaved as she did? What feelings do you think she had after the encounter?
2. What values did Mrs. Henderson teach her grandchildren? Do you think these values were the same as those taught in the homes of the powhitetrash? Explain your answer.
1. Describe Reverend Thomas. What were Marguerite’s feelings about the Reverend Thomas? Why would she not shake hands with him?
2. The narrator in Chapter 6 is very young. What evidence do you have that she is an innocent child? How does her innocence affect what is told in this chapter? Give examples.
1. How did Mrs. Henderson react when she was called on to lead a hymn? What do you think these motions and movements mean?
2. Describe the incident when Momma was called “Mrs.” by the judge. What is the symbolism in the story? How do whites react to the story? How do Negroes react to the story, according to Marguerite?
1. What did the children receive for Christmas? How did they feel about the gifts? What were some of the questions the gifts raised for them?
2. Describe the feelings that Marguerite had toward the white “things.” Why do you think that Marguerite had mixed feelings?
1. Describe Bailey Henderson, Sr., as he appeared to Marguerite. Do you see any weaknesses in Bailey Henderson, Sr.? Do you see any strengths in him? Explain.
2. Describe Marguerite’s grandmother. Do you see any weaknesses in her? What are her greatest strengths? Explain
1. Compare and contrast the schools, the classmates, the curriculum and the teachers that Marguerite and Bailey are accustomed to in Stamps with those they find in St. Louis.
2. Describe Grandmother Baxter in appearance and in personality. Compare and contrast her with Marguerite’s other grandmother, Mrs. Annie Henderson.
1. What was Marguerite’s routine after school each day? Compare and contrast this routine to her after-school routine in Stamps.
2. Describe how Marguerite copes with her life in St. Louis and with the secrets Mr. Freeman forces her to keep.
1. Marguerite tries to escape in different ways from her life in St. Louis. Describe these ways and explain them.
2. Describe Marguerite’s feelings and thoughts while she was “sick.” Why did she have these feelings and thoughts?
1. How was Marguerite able to deal with what had happened to her?
2. How did Bailey react to Marguerite’s rape? Why did he react in this way? How did the nurses react to the rape? How did other adults about her react to the rape and to Marguerite’s muteness?
1. How did Bailey describe the North? Was it accurate? Explain. Why did he give the descriptions he did?
2. Why did the people in Stamps think that Marguerite was not talking? Was this the real reason for Marguerite’s silence? Explain.
1. How did Marguerite feel about Mrs. Flowers? Why did she feel this way?
2. What were the lessons that Mrs. Flowers gave to Marguerite? Which lesson do you think was most important for Marguerite at this time?
1. Discuss the implications of using the shortened name of Mary instead of Marguerite.
2. Compare and contrast the preparation for life given the “Negro girls in small Southern towns” with that given the rich white girls.
1. Compare and contrast Marguerite and Bailey’s reaction to the movie with Kay Francis. Explain their silence about their discovery.
2. Describe the family’s reactions to Bailey’s curfew violation. Does it seem the family overreacted? Explain
1. Contrast religion in the life of the poor and downtrodden and in the life of the whites, according to Marguerite.
2. Contrast and compare the tent revival with the service Marguerite describes earlier in the book.
1. Describe the Store on the night of the fight for the Heavyweight Champion of the World. (Be sure to comment on the atmosphere before, during, and after the event.) Compare and contrast the Store on this night with the Store during a typical work day.
2. Joe Louis’s fight represented something to the residents of Stamps who gathered at the Store. What was the symbolism involved in his winning? What would have been the symbolism had he lost? Would the people have behaved differently after the fight was over if Joe had lost? Explain your answer.
1. Describe Marguerite’s new friend. What were Marguerite’s feelings toward the friend? Do you think the description is an accurate one? Explain.
2. Describe Tommy Valdon and his actions? What were Marguerite’s reactions to Tommy in public? Do you think these actions are typical of her actual feelings? Explain.
1. Describe Joyce. How do you think Joyce really felt about Bailey? Explain your answer.
2. Describe Bailey’s reactions to Joyce’s leaving. Compare and contrast his reactions to the time that another terrible thing happened in his life: when Mr. Freeman raped Marguerite.
1. Describe Mr. Taylor as he is portrayed by Angelou.
2. Describe Mrs. Taylor’s funeral as seen through Marguerite’s eyes. What kind of experience is it for Marguerite.
1. Compare and contrast the plans for the fall for Central School and Lafayette County Training School. Do you think that the parents will vote for Mr. Donleavy? Explain your answer.
2. How were the graduates made to feel unimportant? How were the graduates made to feel important again? Do you think that the unimportant feeling will occur again for the graduates? Explain.
1. Why did the dentist not treat Marguerite? Describe the humiliation he heaped on Mrs. Henderson and her granddaughter.
2. How did Mrs. Henderson seek retribution from the white dentist? Were her actions a surprise to the reader? Explain.
1. Why did Momma say that she is going to take the children to California? Why did Marguerite think Mrs. Henderson is going to do this? Why do you think that there exists this discrepancy?
2. Marguerite indicates that her grandmother is secretive. Why does the text indicate that this is so? Can you think of other reasons for this? Explain your answer.
1. Marguerite describes her mother when she first saw her in St. Louis. In this chapter she describes Mother when she first saw her in California. Compare and contrast the two descriptions.
2. Mother has a party for Bailey and Marguerite. Compare and contrast this party with a typical party. What does this party tell you about Vivian?
1. Compare and contrast San Francisco with Stamps.
2. Why was the “Black newcomer” indifferent to the Japanese removal? Would you say that there is less prejudice in San Francisco than in Stamps? Explain your answer.
1. Compare and contrast the California Labor School and Marguerite’s experience there with the California public schools and Marguerite’s experience there.
2. Marguerite learned much from Mrs. Flowers and Mrs. Kirwin. Compare and contrast these two women in Marguerite’s life.
1. Describe the diverse boarders and the visitors to the household where Marguerite lives. Are there ways that these boarders might be alike? Explain.
2. Discuss the prejudices and discrimination described in Chapter 29. Compare this prejudice and discrimination with that Marguerite experienced in Stamps.
1. Compare and contrast Marguerite’s feelings toward her father after the trip to Mexico and the feelings she had toward him before the trip.
2. Describe the residence of Dolores and Bailey, Sr. How does the residence reflect the personality of Bailey, Sr.? How does it reflect the personality of Dolores?
1. Discuss the sources of conflict between Dolores and Marguerite. What were the results of this conflict?
2. Why do you think that Marguerite did not return home to her mother immediately after the fight?
1. Marguerite learns many important things in this chapter. Describe Marguerite’s lessons learned with the group in the junkyard.
2. Describe the new social group to which Marguerite attached herself. By what standard did the group function successfully? In what ways did the group function unsuccessfully? Explain your answer.
1. What evidence does the reader have that Bailey is trying to grow up in this chapter?
2. Compare and contrast Bailey’s friends with Mother Dear’s friends.
1. Discuss Marguerite’s reactions to finding out from her mother that she could not be a worker on the streetcar. Would this be a typical reaction for a young girl at this time?
2. What discrimination did Marguerite say she had felt by the time she was 15? Do you think she would have felt the same types of discrimination if she were growing up today? Explain why you answered as you did.
1. Marguerite had many doubts about herself. Is this normal in adolescence or is this unique with Marguerite? Explain.
2. Marguerite has many misconceptions. What are some of these misconceptions? Explain each.
1. During her pregnancy and after the birth of her child, Marguerite felt several emotions. Describe these emotions. Why do you think she felt them?
2. What evidence do you have that Marguerite is a mature young woman at the end of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?