Why is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Banned?

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

What could possibly get you banned from a school classroom or library? In this lesson, we'll explore the reasons that Maya Angelou's book, 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' ranks among the most frequently banned.

Keep Out!

Have you ever been told to ''Keep Out!'' of a particular area? It might have been a sign on someone's property, a security guard blocking off the backstage area of a concert venue, or even a private area of a business like a hospital or grocery store.

Banned books are like a keep out sign for literature.
banned books, keep out, authors, writers, maya angelou

In literature, the equivalent of the ''Keep Out!' sign is the banning of a book from a school or public venue. Books are challenged for any number of reasons, including content that is too violent or sexually explicit; language that is offensive; or subjects that are deemed unsuitable for certain age groups, such as racism.

Believe it or not, Maya Angelou is one of the most banned authors in the United States. Her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has constantly been one of the most challenged books in the country since its release in 1969. But why?

Banning Angelou

After being approved for public school curriculum in the early 1980s, Angelou's book faced its first challenge just a few years later. In 1983, it was banned because the Alabama State Textbook Committee determined it incited ''bitterness and hatred toward white people.'' A few years later, Bremerton, Washington, banned it for the graphic depiction of molestation. In 1994 , it was challenged for being a ''lurid tale of sexual perversion'' in Castle Rock, Colorado. As recently as 2016, parents in Illinois asked for it to be removed from required reading due to sexual content.

The Office for Intellectual Freedom, a function of the American Library Association, has received numerous confidential reports about Angelou's book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, over the past few decades, with the majority concerning the book's sexually explicit material, such as the sexual abuse the author suffered as a child, and its ''anti-white'' messaging. Today, the autobiography sits at third on the association's ''100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999'' and is one of the ten books most frequently banned from classrooms and school libraries. Challengers have routinely cited issues relating to sexual content, racism, abuse, and explicit language as reasons to disqualify the book from reading lists.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Angelou's book, which is part autobiography, part literary fiction, details many real-life events the author experienced from her early life through adulthood. Many of these recollections have led to the book being challenged and ultimately banned. For example:

  • Angelou details being raped when she was just eight years old.
  • The author explains how she was molested by her mother's boyfriend, Mr. Freeman.
  • Angelou explains how the boss at her first job refused to call her Maya, instead referring to her as Mary.
  • The book details how a white speaker at her eighth grade graduation spoke about academics at white schools but only athletics at black schools.

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