Why Maya Angelou’s Memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings Became One of the Most Banned Books of All Time

Some good news: Maya Angelou’s 1969 mem­oir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a recount­ing of her first 17 years, includ­ing a rape at the age of 7 or 8 by her mother’s boyfriend, and her sub­se­quent emo­tion­al trau­ma, no longer leads the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion’s Office for Intel­lec­tu­al Freedom’s list of banned and chal­lenged books.

The bad news: there will always be titles assigned to high school­ers that vivid­ly depict young people’s actu­al expe­ri­ence, that par­ents and com­mu­ni­ty groups will tar­get on sim­i­lar grounds.

New African list­ed some of the ver­ba­tim objec­tions that have been lev­eled against I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - that it encour­aged “pro­fan­i­ty”, was filled with “descrip­tions of drug abuse, sex­u­al­ly explic­it con­duct and tor­ture”, preached “bit­ter­ness and hatred against whites”, was “like­ly to cor­rupt minors” and con­tained “inap­pro­pri­ate­ly explic­it sex­u­al scenes.”

Angelou, who accused the book’s detrac­tors of not read­ing more than two words of it, bri­dled that any­one would “act as if their chil­dren are not faced with the same threats.”

Mol­lie Godfrey’s TED-Ed les­son, ani­mat­ed by Lau­ra White. above, points out how rad­i­cal Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was for a work of its time:

Her auto­bi­og­ra­phy was one of the first to speak open­ly about child sex­u­al abuse and espe­cial­ly ground­break­ing to do so from the per­spec­tive of the abused child. For cen­turies Black women writ­ers have been lim­it­ed by stereo­types char­ac­ter­iz­ing them as hyper­sex­u­al. Afraid of rein­forc­ing these stereo­types, few were will­ing to write about their sex­u­al­i­ty at all but Angelou refused to be con­strained. She pub­licly explored her most per­son­al expe­ri­ence with­out apol­o­gy or shame.

Robert P. Doyle, vice-pres­i­dent of the Free­dom to Read Foun­da­tion, revealed that the ALA was inspired to launch Banned Books Week in 1982, when the Amer­i­can Book­sellers Asso­ci­a­tion dis­played I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and oth­er works in a cage out­side the entrance to their annu­al con­fer­ence:

The dis­play gen­er­at­ed a lot of press atten­tion. And the book com­mu­ni­ty real­ized that we have not only an oppor­tu­ni­ty, but a respon­si­bil­i­ty to engage the Amer­i­can pub­lic in a con­ver­sa­tion about the First Amend­ment as it relates to books and lit­er­a­ture. A coali­tion was formed imme­di­ate­ly with the authors, pub­lish­ers, and major dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ters (book­stores and libraries) in the U.S. to draw atten­tion to the impor­tance of the free­dom to read, to pub­li­cize threats to that free­dom, and to pro­vide infor­ma­tion to com­bat the lack of aware­ness.

Many of the book’s high pro­file defend­ers dis­cov­ered it at a for­ma­tive age, includ­ing rap­per Com­mon, who decid­ed to become a writer after encoun­ter­ing it as a 5th grad­er, and Oprah Win­frey, who was blown away to learn that anoth­er young Black girl had also endured sex­u­al abuse:

I read those words and thought, “Some­body knows who I am.”

No less mov­ing is a com­ment on Godfrey’s TED-Ed les­son left by a teacher in Texas:

Caged Bird helped saved my life. Thank­ful for the day my 11th grade Eng­lish teacher at a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian school hand­ed it to me and said, “read this, sweet pea”…I still encour­age my stu­dents at a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian school in TX to read it.”

“I am glad you got the help you need­ed,” anoth­er view­er respond­ed. “I live in Flori­da, and that teacher who helped you would be charged with a felony here. I’m dead seri­ous.”

Lis­ten to Maya Angelou dis­cuss I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in this 1970  inter­view with Studs Terkel. 

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Brook­lyn Pub­lic Library Gives Every Teenag­er in the U.S. Free Access to Cen­sored Books

Texas School Board Bans Illus­trat­ed Edi­tion of The Diary of Anne Frank

Ten­nessee School Board Bans Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize Win­ning Graph­ic Nov­el on the Holo­caust; the Book Becomes #1 Best­seller on Ama­zon

The 850 Books a Texas Law­mak­er Wants to Ban Because They Could Make Stu­dents Feel Uncom­fort­able

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Christine Malloy says:

    We should not have been sub­ject­ed to any book ban­ning in any state. First of all in the US books are sold online and in book stores etc. There is always a way to get a book. Ban­ning things makes peo­ple want them more. An exam­ple would be alco­hol in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Peo­ple just made their own booze or bought them from boot­leg­gers. Before being banned demand might be small. After cen­sor­ship peo­ple will be come more inter­est­ed what­ev­er is banned. Why are not the authors suing the places where the books are banned. What coun­try are we liv­ing in when we ban books? Pre WW2 Ger­many where Hitler banned and burned books?

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