Spotlight on Censorship: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Banned Books Week, Censorship, Office for Intellectual Freedom


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
“Fear of corrupting the mind of the younger generation is the loftiest form of cowardice.”— Holbrook Jackson

Because the display of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in miniature prison cell at the American Booksellers Association 1982 annual convention catalyzed the advent of Banned Books Week, it is a fitting first profile for the Spotlight on Censorship series.

According to the new edition of Banned Books Resource Guide, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has had thirty-nine public challenges or bans since 1983.  The majority of complaints were from parents who objected to the book’s depiction of 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.  The Office for Intellectual Freedom has received significantly more confidential reports of challenges to this iconic book in the past three decades.

In a victory for the freedom to read, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has often been retained despite challenges and attempted removals.  In one case, the book remained in the curriculum for sophomores at Dowling High School in Des Moines, Iowa, after a 1994 challenge by a parent who objected to the book’s “inappropriately explicit sexual scenes.”  The book also was challenged but retained in the Volusia County (FL) County Schools (1995); on the Beech High School reading list in Hendersonville, Tenn. (1995); on the optional reading list at the East Lawrence High School in Moulton, Ala.; and as part of the Mukileteo (WA) School District’s high school curriculum (1997).

Interestingly, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was retained in 2006 as part of a high school sophomore advanced English class in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a locale in the news this year because of a challenge to Sonya Sones’ One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies.

Most recently, the book was challenged twice in California.  The Newman-Crows Landing School District challenged its inclusion on the Orestimba High School English Department in 2009 when a trustee questioned whether the school’s staff was qualified to teach a novel depicting African-American culture.  Again in 2009, the book was restricted to students with parental permission at the Ocean View School District middle school libraries in Huntington Beach.

In response to the controversy in Huntington Beach, Angelou told the Orange County Register “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.”


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