I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Vocabulary Words

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

''I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'' by Maya Angelou is a memoir that explores identity, race, and womanhood. It was Angelou's debut memoir and was published in 1969. In this lesson, we will look at some important vocabulary words from the book.

A Brief Introduction to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is an eye-opening autobiography that tracks Angelou's life as a young girl. The story covers themes surrounding racism, trauma, womanhood, and identity. The book boasts a rich vocabulary that develops as the story moves from a three-year-old Angelou to a seventeen-year-old Angelou. In this lesson, we will uncover the meanings of several vocabulary words that are incredibly important to the book.


Considering that much of the story takes place in the South during times of racial tension, it isn't surprising to find the word segregated in the book. The word segregated is an adjective that means to be divided into groups or separated from one another. For example, Angelou writes, ''I don't remember much of the trip, but after we reached the segregated southern part of the journey, things must have looked up.''


Appellation is a noun that refers to a word used to identify a person or thing. In the book, Angelou uses it to talk about the familial names used for the adults in their new home in the South. For example, she writes, ''All adults had to be addressed as Mister, Missus, Miss, Auntie, Cousin, Unk, Uncle, Buhbah, Sister, Brother and a thousand other appellations indicating familial relationship and the lowliness of the addressor.''


The noun masochist refers to a person who gets pleasure, usually sexual in nature, out of being abused or dominated by another person. Angelou uses the word when referring to black folks and the pain and suffering that they've endured. She says, ''The idea came to me that my people may be a race of masochists and that not only was it our fate to live the poorest, roughest life but that we liked it like that.''


Wile is a noun that means to have a skill able to trick or manipulate. Look how the word wile is used in the following passage from the book: ''Would Momma, who knew the ways of the whites and the wiles of the Blacks, try to answer her grandson, whose very life depended on his not truly understanding the enigma?''


The adjective gauche describes people who lack social refinement. Angelou uses the word to describe people who aren't accustomed to the community. She says, ''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.''


The bourgeoisie is a noun describing the middle class. Angelou writes, ''When I met Dolores she had all the poses of the Black bourgeoisie without the material basis to support the postures.''


Hamper is a transitive verb. It means to get in the way of something else or to prevent something from progressing forward. For example, Angelou writes, ''My willingness to do so was hampered by an abounding ignorance of how it should be done and a fumbling awkwardness with small objects.''

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