LIT 4386 British and American Literature
Angelou, from "I know why the caged bird sings" (1916)
Post #11 Group A
- To discuss Angelou's use of autobiography, humor
- To analyze representations of race, childhood, fantasy
Angelou's gift for painting a picture and creating a scene
establishes the rich context for the action of the short piece.
Character and imaginative fantasy
(with its poignant understanding of the human need for self-respect)
carry it forward.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
1. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" -
The Peckerwood Dentist and Momma's Incredible Powers (1917)
What form is the work?
What sort of expectations do you have for an autobiography? What ought it be or contain?
What is the style of Angelou's writing?
Who are the main characters?
What is the setting?
Descirbe the conflict.
Read bottom 1917 to top 1918. How does Angelou evoke a child's perception in this passage?
Note how this changes on their walk to the white section of town. Read middle paragraphs.
What happens as they cross that divide? What does the crossing represent? How does it
change Marguerite's self-perception (what happens to her pain)? Why?
To what extent is she being ironic when she says, "If one was dying, one had
to die in style . . .whitefolks' part of town" (1918)?
Why does Marguerite find it humiliating that Momma uses only her given name,
rather than a proper mode of address on the bottom of 1918.
Why does the name "Annie" diminish her?
What makes Momma believe she can get Dr. Lincoln to treat her granddaughter?
What happens when she reminds Dr. Lincoln of his debt? Why doesn't this work?
In the confrontation with Dr. Lincoln, Marguerite comes face to face with the degrading,
dehumanizing force of racism -- "I would rather stick my hand in a dog's mouth than a nigga's" (1919).
Her pain is ignored, the reality of her universe obliterated and her humanity and that of those
she loves lowered beneath an animal.
What follows is a remarkable instance of resilience in the face of such threatening hostility.
Marguerite is asked to step aside while Momma enters the Dentist's office uninvited.
The passage in italics represents Marguerite's life-affirming fantasy that restores
to her the reality of her existence and the respect of her protector.
As we examine the fantasy, notice the magical properties of WORDS.
It hearkens back to a time when words cast spells, words were regarded as
dangerous weapons, capable of killing - certainly condemning and maligning.
It is this totemic force of language that Marguerite holds on to.
2. Discussion -- the fantasy and the reality
What happens to the racial categories in Marguerite's version of the scene? Who has power?
What does Dr. Lincoln call "momma" and how does this differ from "Annie"?
What effect might this detail have for the young Marguerite?
How does Momma speak in this scene? How does Marguerite explain this change? Why is it important?
What is the conclusion of Momma's confrontation with the peckerwood dentist?
What desires or wishes does this fantasy fulfill for the child?
Afterwards Momma takes Marguerite on a bus to the dentist in Texarkana where she is treated.
Later, she learns the "truth" of what happened behind the doors of Dr. Lincoln's office,
as Momma and Uncle Willie laugh.
Examine the ending paragraphs.
What are the differences between the two versions of what happens to Dr. Lincoln?
What form of punishment is dealt to Dr. Lincoln in each?
How is it achieved?
What is the end result?
What is the significance of the difference?
Why does Marguerite prefer, much prefer, her version?