The novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the life story of Maya Angelou as she struggles through life in the South. Published in 1969, the novel has received critical acclaim since 1970 and spent three years as a number one best seller on the New York Times Best Seller List. (Caged Bird Essay) Although this book has a best seller, it was the ninth most frequently challenged book in American high schools (Caged Bird Essay) and has been a censorship target for years. Many school libraries have banned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, because numerous parents believe that the book is vulgar, poor literature and that it is inappropriate for use in public schools for young people of any age. Others believe that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings might do what parents fear most – raise important issues while leaving the young reader no avenue to discover his or her relationship to those ideas.
What do people mean by “vulgar”? The story consists of Angelou’s experiences when she was growing up which includes graphic scenarios. For example, when she described her rape by her mothers boyfriend at the age of eight. In Southlake Texas high schools, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was banned because of the “pornographic description” of her rape. (Caged Bird Essay) Other schools have chosen not to ban the book by just deleting the rape chapters. The use of language in the scene of Angelou’s rape is hardly explicit, yet it does deal with a sensitive issue and evoke a strong emotional response.
Angelou’s thoughts of homosexuality became another issue and in any case, a book that discusses homosexuality is presumed controversial. As she begins puberty, confusion sets in, and the possibility of homosexuality scares her. (Caged Bird Essay) Angelou was not exactly sure what a lesbian was, but she felt that her low voice, masculine gait convinced her that she was one and later on in life she dealt with this “confusion.” To figure out if she was a lesbian or not, she asked a fellow classmate if he wanted to have “sexual intercourse” with her to ensure herself that she was heterosexual. This action of hers resulted in her pregnancy, which brings up another issue: Premarital sex. As a pregnant sixteen-year-old, Angelou saw nothing very wrong with her actions.
I Why the Caged Bird Sings also encourages social problems that our society fights. In the following quotation, Angelou talks about joy derived from a pregnancy as an unwed sixteen year old. ‘For the next two weeks, I whirled around the city, taking vitamin shots and pills, buying clothes for the baby, and except for the rare moments alone, enjoying the imminent blessed event.’ The last message we want to put across to sexually curious teenagers is that a teenage pregnancy can bring happiness! –Author Unknown
The pornographic content and premarital sex do not compare to the racism which is the number one issue of the book and is the main reason why this book has been so controversial. There is no reason to believe that the novel is in its poignant portrayal of race relations. (Learning to Live) This explains why the story has been most
controversial in the South, where racial tension was historically the worst and where the novel is particularity set. The obvious and subtle effects of racism on a young Angelou help explain the controversial factor of the book. In the book described her mixture feelings towards oppression as a child. She felt horrible when she hear the whites saying derogatory comments towards blacks, like when a doctor said, “My policy is that I’d rather stick my hand down a dog’s mouth than a niggers.”(I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) Comments like these made her feel anger towards her community, and often Angelou often wondered about how it would have been like if she woke up in the white world, with blond hair and blues eyes and shudder the nightmare of being black:
Angelou paints a picture of some of the negative choice’s: white America choosing to oppress groups of people; choosing lynch law over justice; choosing intimidation over honor. She offers a deep “talk” on the possibility of positive choices: choosing life over death; choosing courage over safety; choosing discipline over chaos; choosing voice over silence; choosing compassion over pity, over hatred, over habit; choosing work and planning and hope over useless recrimination and slovenly despair. –Opal Moore: Learning to Live: When the Bird Breaks from the Cage
The depiction of hatred between the races can not be comfortable for southern whites that the novel implicitly criticizes. Majorie Jones, head of the American Civil Liberties Union Arts Censorship project had this to say:
“(Angelou) portrays white people as being horrible, nasty stupid people . . .and I don’t appreciate being portrayed in that way.” –Marjorie Heins, The Washington Post 1/11/98
On the other hand the book’s defenders say:
“Angelou uses her poet’s gifts to give students an evocative portrait of life under ssegregation, a first hand account of a dark period in history that has the same immediacy as Anne Frank’s did.”- Annie Gowen, The Washington Post 1/11/98
Overall many believe that I Know Why the Caged Birds Sings is one of the greatest books that Angelou has written so far. Still this book is destined to be controversial for a long time. Maybe one day, parents will understand the important issues and feelings towards important issues like the ones described in the story and understand them through the eyes of Maya Angelou.