Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings won critical acclaim and was nominated for the National Book Award. Wrote critic Sidonie Ann Smith in Southern Humanities Review, "Angelou's genius as a writer is her ability to recapture the texture of the way of life in the texture of its idioms, its idiosyncratic vocabulary and especially in its process of image-making." This book, the first of five in a series describing her life and her continuing search for self-realization, was the best received of the collection. Some posit that the reason is that in her subsequent autobiographical novels, Angelou—who went through many ups and downs in her life—was a less appealing character, though her lifelong achievements thus far seem to belie such criticism.
Critical analysis of Angelou's autobiographical prose has mainly focused on Caged Bird and its portrayal of a black woman's coming of age. Assessing the work within the tradition of African-American memoirs, George Kent notes in African American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays that the work stands out in its use of the imagination: "I Know Why creates a unique place within black autobiographical tradition ... by its special stance toward the self, the community, and the universe, and by a form exploiting the full measure of imagination necessary to acknowledge both beauty and absurdity." Other critics have examined the manner in which Angelou's characters survive in a hostile world. Myra K. McMurry, for instance, observes in South Atlantic Bulletin how Momma serves as a role model for Marguerite, and indeed for all people fighting racism. "She triumphs not only in spite of her restrictions, but because of them. It is because, as a Black woman, she must maintain the role of respect toward the white children that she discovers another vehicle for her true emotions. She has used her cage creatively to transcend it." Suzette A. Henke suggests in Traditions, Voices, and Dreams that this autobiographical work, in presenting a voice that is not often heard, "has the potential to be ... a revolutionary form of writing." In the "comic and triumphant" end of the novel, writes Henke, Marguerite's "victory suggests an implicit triumph over the white bourgeoisie [middle class], whose values have flagrantly been subverted."
While the work has been praised, analyzed, and taught in classrooms, it has also met with censorship. The graphic portrayal of Marguerite's rape as well as the acceptance of her teenage, out-of-wedlock pregnancy have inspired the most challenges. However, Opal Moore suggests that these events offer students a chance to examine important issues. As she writes in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints: "With the appropriate effort, this literary experience can assist readers of any racial or economic group in meeting their own, often unarticulated doubts, questions, fears, and perhaps assist in their own search for dignity."