Reception of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

Maya Angelou's novel ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'' tells her story about growing up as a young black girl in the American South facing many hardships. This lesson will explore how the book was received by audiences and critics giving additional focus to its literary influence and censorship.


Before we get into the reception of Angelou's work, we should first have a common understanding of the story. Maya Angelou published her novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. Her novel tells of her upbringing from ages three to 16 and dealing with rejection from her parents, southern racism, and sexual assault. Angelou's story ends with her giving birth at the young age of 16. This story combines her personal story with a connection to larger themes of racism and growing up in the south.

The author Maya Angelou

Why Look at Reception?

When a book comes out, shouldn't we judge it based on its literary elements and the author's ability to weave a story? We should, but it is also important to know of its reception, or how it was accepted, or not accepted, by its audience. Books can spark both political and social changes and give voice to groups who often don't have a platform from which to be heard. If a book is well received with crowds, it can lead to acceptance of new ideas. Truly powerful writers can capture the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, in their writing and can define a group or lead to new ideas, types of writing, or literary movements. Angelou captures the zeitgeist of America in the 1930s and 1940s with her book. Angelou focuses on a black girl's life, which was a topic that was often overlooked or ignored by writers at the time. Angelou's blend of autobiography and literary fiction led to a new type of writing for future authors as well.

Reception: Public

Soon after being published, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings became an immediate bestseller. Angelou's book reached the New York Times best sellers list again after speaking at President Clinton's inauguration in 1993. In fact, sales of her book increased by 500% after her appearance! As recently as early June of 2014, this book came in second on's bestseller list, coinciding with her passing. This book was popular with audiences when it came out and its popularity extends to today.

These large book sales originally confused publishers. There was a common idea in the publishing world that black women's lives were rarely worth an autobiography. As the amount of sales of this book would suggest, this idea was absolutely wrong and led to other black female authors publishing books with a similar focus.

Reception: Influence

Due to the popular reception of Angelou's work, many other authors found their voice and a way to get published. Angelou published this book during a big moment for the Black Power Movement leading a surge of writers who were black women. She paved the way for the authors Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Gayle Jones and others. Her focus on the significance of her experiences as a black girl encouraged other writers to write about this as well.

Reception: Censorship

Angelou's book has had problems with censorship, or banning of a book. Her work ranks as the third most banned book between 1990 and 2000. It has even been called the most banned book in America by some. Most of the complaints came from parents who disliked the book's depiction of sexually explicit scenes, including those featuring rape and molestation. In addition, it has been challenged for being ''anti-white'' and encouraging homosexuality.

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