Maya Angelou: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Missouri River and the Mississippi River, I sat reading, immersed in a book that was brand new to me. Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969, and I was reading it in 1984. The book – the first in a seven-volume memoir – is set partly in my hometown of St. Louis (where Angelou was born in 1928), and I reveled in seeing my city brought to life. Though Angelou was black and I was white, I would ultimately discover that she and I shared more than a hometown.

Little did I know that Angelou’s book, so compelling and so honest, would become one of the most frequently banned books in America. As we celebrate Banned Books Week (September 27-October 3), I want to sing the praises of this marvelous book, so often kept from the teenagers who would benefit from hearing Angelou’s story. In fact, according to the American Library Association, so notorious was the banning of Angelou’s book that “the display of . . . I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in [a] miniature prison cell at the American Booksellers Association 1982 annual convention catalyzed the advent of Banned Books Week.”

According to New African magazine, “Efforts to ban Angelou’s book got it placed on the American Library Association’s list of the top banned books in the US. Between 1990 and 2000, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was ranked number three on the list. Between 2001 and 2010, the book was ranked number six on the list of the most challenged and banned books.”

Why was this truthful, gripping, beautifully written book banned by so many schools and libraries? It’s a coming-of-age story, says New African magazine, that “details how the author survived rape, teen pregnancy and racism in America.” Here are some of the reasons the book has been banned.

Stopping young people reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is why the conservative Parents Against Bad Books in Schools group in Fairfax, Virginia, was formed.

Claiming it encouraged “profanity” and was filled with “descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct and torture,” the group succeeded in having Angelou’s book banned from a Virginia school district.

Book banners were successful elsewhere in the US’s deep South. In Alabama, four members of the State Textbook Committee, which decides what books are allowed in local schools, asked that the book be rejected because, they said, it preached “bitterness and hatred against whites.”

And, in Poolesville, Maryland, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was removed from the local high school reading list because, protestors charged, it was “likely to corrupt minors.” . . .

Despite the honours Angelou’s work received, the book banners have been relentless. In 2009 – in Huntington Beach, California – John Briscoe, a school board trustee, called for Angelou’s book to be removed from the school curriculum.

“It contains child molestation scenes, lesbian scenes, teen sex scenes and teen pregnancy scenes,” complained the Ocean View school board trustee at a city council meeting. “And these are not matters for children in middle school or any elementary school,” Briscoe added.

But of Angelou herself? Despite the pushback against her debut autobiography, she was one of the nation’s most celebrated authors. The “Banned Books Awareness” website reminds us that

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for a National Book Award, and in 1972, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a collection of poetry. She’s won Tony and Emmy awards; and Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word album in 1993, 1995, and 2002. At the request of President Bill Clinton, Angelou wrote “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she recited live at his 1993 inauguration as US President. She [was] awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to her in 2011.

Many people, throughout the US and, indeed, across the globe, mourned when she died in 2014.

In an interview near the end of her life, Angelou said, “Let me tell so much truth, I want to tell the truth in my work. The truth will lead me to all.” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was one of my influences when I decided to write about childhood trauma in my 2009 memoir, Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative. Oh, how I understand her desire to speak truth!

Curious about the book’s title? It is the closing line in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1899 poem, “Sympathy.” An important African American poet, Dunbar was just one of the many black writers, thinkers, and leaders who inspired Angelou throughout her life. She was particularly close to James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was assasinated on her 40th birthday), Malcolm X, and Oprah Winfrey.

If you want to read a riveting tale that has rocked the nation, look no further than I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou’s other six autobiographies are great reading as well, but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a perfect starting point. And if you want to learn more about this “Phenomenal Woman,” check out the lengthy Wikipedia entry, the Poetry Foundation’s page on Angelou, The New Yorker’s article “Songbird,” and the Smithsonian Magazine’s interview with her. These are just a few of the many, many great resources about this esteemed African American writer.

Finally, if you want to explore other banned books this week, check out Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (which was banned at the US prison in Guantánamo Bay), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.

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Listen:Listen to Maya Angelou read a ten-minute excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Follow along as she reads the book’s Prologue and its first chapter (click on this page and scroll down to “Read an Excerpt”). If you love hearing Angelou read the story in her resonant voice, you might want to buy the full audiobookicon.

Image Credit: This photograph of Maya Angelou reading “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993 is in the public domain.

Comments

  1. Love Angelou. I first met her at a workshop for curriculum specialists in St. Louis in the late 70’s. She was POWERFUL!

    • Jim–How very exciting that you got meet her! I saw her speak when I was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Charismatic, powerful, regal!

  2. You came to the book in 1984; I discovered it just a couple of years later. I remain grateful for Maya Angelou’s truth-telling. Her memoirs fueled my own passion for writing; they just got inside and worked their way around! I remain awed at the numbers of writers and performers she provided juice for. One of the greats of our time, and what a privilege to have lived when she did.

  3. Oh how I long for Maya Angelou’s voice, the elegant beauty of her storytelling, her facility with words and supreme ability to create vivid images in my mind. I read this book years ago–thank you for reminding me of it’s razor-edged beauty!

  4. Joyce Compton brown says

    Oh yes. This was the memoir I used as a bridge to discussing the small town South in my classes. So hard to get kids to open up, but they would write after reading this work. And that voice, what an instrument. We still need that voice, those words. We have not yet healed.

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