Banned Books Awareness: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”


Maya Angelou has done many things in her storied life and career; along the way she has inspired millions- both here in the United States and around the world.

Her 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was nominated for a National Book Award. 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 U.S. President.

She has been awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to her in 2011.

How could such a person possibly be included in this series?

Despite her impressive resume, Maya Angelou is one of the most banned authors in U.S. history. So controversial is she that she was ranked #3 on the ALA’s top 100 list for 1990-2000 and #6 for 2001-2010. She has placed in the top 10 every year for the past decade.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the autobiographical telling about the writer and poet’s early years. It is a story that demonstrates how strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. The book begins when three-year-old Maya and her older brother are sent to live with their grandmother and ends when Maya becomes a mother at the age of 17. Through the years Maya transforms from a victim of racism with an inferiority complex into a self-assured, dignified young woman who is commanding as a civil rights activist.

Angelou’s autobiography explores subjects such as identity, rape, racism, and literacy with intelligence and sophistication; she also writes about the state of women’s lives in a male-dominated society.

In 2011, TIME magazine named the book one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since the beginning of the publication in 1923. It has been used in high schools and universities, and the book has been celebrated for creating new literary avenues for the American memoir. However, the book’s graphic portrayal of childhood rape, racism, and sexuality has caused it to be challenged or banned in some schools and libraries- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has had thirty-nine public challenges or bans since 1983.

The Office for Intellectual Freedom has received a significant number of confidential reports of challenges to this book in the past three decades. The majority of the complaints were over the depiction of the sexually explicit scenes, including the rape and molestation suffered by the author as an eight-year-old, but it also has been challenged for being “anti-white and encouraging homosexuality.”

In Kansas, parents attempted to ban the book based on the “vulgar language, sexual explicitness, and violent imagery that is gratuitously employed.”

It was challenged in 1994, but remained, on the curriculum for sophomores at Dowling High School in Des Moines, Iowa, after a parent objected to the book’s “inappropriately explicit sexual scenes.” In 1995, the book was also challenged, and again retained, in the Volusia County, Florida County Schools; and on the Beech High School reading list in Hendersonville, Tennessee. In 1997 it was challenged as part of the optional reading list at the East Lawrence High School in Moulton, Alabama; and as part of the Mukileteo, Washington School District’s high school curriculum.

As for the following decade, it was challenged for being on a Poolesville, Maryland, high school reading list because of its sexual content and language in 2001; banned for language and being too explicit in the book’s portrayal of rape and other sexual abuse in 2002; challenged in 2003 as required reading in a Hamilton, Montana freshman English class due to sexual exploration by teenagers, rape and homosexuality; challenged in Fairfax, Virginia, school libraries by the group Parents Against Bad Books in Schools for “profanity and descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct and torture.”

2005 brought along challenges of racism, homosexuality, sexual content, offensive language and being unsuited to age group.

In 2006 it was removed as required reading from an Annapolis, Maryland freshman English class due to mature content. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and it was retained in another 2006 challenge as part of a high school sophomore advanced English class in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a town which also challenged Sonya Sones’ One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies that same year. Parents had objected to teens reading about Angelou being brutally raped by her mother’s boyfriend and an unwanted pregnancy later in life.

Then in 2008 in Manheim Township, Pennsylvania schools, it was retained in the 9th grade English curriculum; and in the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho School District. Some parents said the book, along with 5 other titles, should require parental permission for students to read them.

Among the more recent incidents, the book was challenged twice in California. The Newman-Crows Landing School District challenged its inclusion in the Orestimba High School English Department in 2009, because a trustee questioned whether the school’s staff was “qualified to teach a novel depicting African-American culture.” Then, in 2010, the book was restricted to students with parental permission at the Ocean View School District middle school libraries in Huntington Beach because the “book’s contents were inappropriate for children.”

It never ceases to amaze me how this society attempts to turn a blind eye to actual events which it deems too troubling to admit to, let alone deal with. These are situations that affected real lives and real people, in real places. How can you put a cover on the truth? I could see some arguments about the content if it was fictional, but this is part of history. How does hiding from it heal the wounds or explore the answers?

What is most troubling is how a society can build a person up to such a stature, with Presidential awards, literary and media accolades, to place them on a national pedestal, yet at the same time knock them down at every opportunity. Why must we make heroes only to crush them?

It’s amazing that anyone has the courage anymore to step into the light and let their voice be heard, as when she said, “I’m always sorry that people ban my books. Many times I’ve been called the most banned. And many times my books are banned by people who never read two sentences. I feel sorry for the young person who never gets to read.” Maya Angelou has taught us courage, wisdom, tenderness, and passion. The world could use many more like her.


For a complete list of titles covered and more information about the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project, please visit

Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, MSN, American Library Association, Office of Intellectual Freedom, Florida State University Libraries, Marshall University, TIME
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

33 thoughts on “Banned Books Awareness: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

  1. I have yet to read this book, but what little I know about Ms.Angelou I like. Which is why I have mixed feelings about anyone under 18 reading this book given the described content. I do not have children of my own, but like alot of parents I want to protect children as much as possible from the depravities of other human beings. But on the other hand, they need to know so they can arm themselves. That rape,molestation, murder, etc can happen to them or to those they love or not.

    Those who Ban Books, I wonder if they realize that by doing so, it will make people that much more curious about reading the book? I can't help but wonder if those that tried banning the Harry Potter books inevertentially caused the sales to increase? lol. *Snickers* Now that does make me cackle.

    • I’m in high school and we were required to read this book for our English class. I’m not sure what schools are trying to protect us from. Everything that was in the book is something we already see or hear in schools, on the news, and everywhere we go. This book taught me so much more about what African American’s had to endure. I do believe though that someone who wants to read this book should definitely be at a mature age.

  2. There are two sayings that come to mind: Controversy creates cash, and there's no such thing as bad press.
    I firmly believe that by protesting and throwing a big hoopla about a book or movie has an adverse effect of making people want to check it out for themselves. People are curious by nature, especially if something is deemed taboo or off-limits.
    The press the banners give these mediums definitely impacts their sales. I have to laugh at that.

  3. Sometimes the best way to protect a child is not by standing before them acting as a shield, but by giving them the sword of knowledge, with you standing by their side.

    • I had never heard of Maya Angelou or her books and poems before this last semester when my Junior in high school was assigned her name as the subject of his research paper. He was to choose two of her works (any type of work) and write on them as well as Maya. I chose “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her children’s series “Maya’s World” for him to write his paper on. I am eager to read the book myself, however, I do think parents should be given the option of choosing whether or not their children read her books. They seem like fantastic reads. I am a parent who does not often choose to shield my children from things of the world, but many parents do not agree with me. I think the choice should be left to the individual parent rather than the school itself. I picked this book out of many other options for my son, but I do not think all juniors or even seniors should be reading it. It is not only about the parents choice, but each child is different as well and it is not banning the book to allow the parents to “Opt Out” of their children reading it. I can’t wait to read all of her autobiographies!

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  18. There is nothing wrong with having certain books kept from being placed in a school’s curricula, or from being categorized within said curricula as only appropriate for teaching at later grades of formal education. Whether one would term this “book banning” or not is debatable, as every day there are decisions made by educators and school boards to include or reject certain literature in school curricula. Sometimes literature is kept from school curricula because it is obsolete in relation to the times. In other circumstances a book may be prohibited from teaching because it contains lewd or age-inappropriate language.This is obliviously an issue fraught with subjectivity anyway.

    Any sensible (and therein lies the conundrum, especially given the many more looney tunes’ teachers instructing children these days) person should agree a book by Maya Angelou’s would not be appropriate for teaching in, say, third or fourth grade, but could possibly be appropriate to use with students at an 11th or 12th grade, high school level. From my own perspective, I would no more approve of Angelou’s writings to be taught alongside the writings of Charles Dickens, George Orwell, William Shakespeare, and/or Mark Twain than I would to include the works of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx along with “Sally, Dick and Jane” (once known as Scott-Foresman readers) to first and second graders.

    Of course, were I in charge of a school board or English or social sciences department making such decisions, I would place any of Maya Angelou’s writings so approved in a course titled something like “Critical Analyses of Marxist Propaganda Literature,” such do I think her to have been of such a politically motivated mindset.

  19. Not seeing a means by which to edit comments already posted, I am correcting my previous post, which in the first sentence of the second paragraph should read either “a book by Maya Angelou” or “a book of Maya Angelou’s,” but NOT “a book by Maya Angelou’s,” as originally posted.

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  25. I like what Maya Angelou is about. Her beliefs are very strong and she is an influential person in history. Yes, the book may be a little too much for young readers but older, more mature readers could withstand the content. Maybe this book would do better for a high school or college level, since we are required to read How to Kill a Mockingbird anyways.

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