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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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Publication History and Reception: Maya Angelou’s first book, the memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969 and was an immediate critical and commercial success. It appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for two years after its publication and was nominated for a National Book Award. In 2011, Time Magazine listed Caged Bird as one of the hundred best books written since 1923. In 2013, Angelou’s body of work was recognized by the National Book Foundation, which granted her the Literarian Award. Angelou wrote six more memoirs, three books of essays, and thirteen volumes of original poetry, but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remains Angelou’s most recognized and acclaimed work.

  • Author Biography: Marguerite Annie Johnson, better known as Maya Angelou, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. She had a diverse career that spanned writing, acting, singing, and producing films and plays. Angelou’s work as a civil rights activist led her to meet and work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., direct the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1960, and befriend Malcolm X.
  • Issue of Censorship: Maya Angelou is one of the most banned authors in American history. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings explores difficult subject matter and includes a graphic portrayal of the author’s rape and molestation as an eight-year-old. In the early eighties, Angelou’s book was removed from numerous school reading lists and public libraries based on objections from school officials and parents to its depictions of sex and rape, offensive language, and perceived inappropriateness for younger readers. Members of Alabama’s State Textbook Committee claimed that the book encourages “bitterness and hatred against whites,” and other education boards criticized its depictions of teen pregnancy and homosexuality. Angelou expressed both anger and sorrow over her book’s censorship, stating, “I feel sorry for the young person who never gets to read it.” Despite these obstacles, Angelou’s memoir has been widely adopted by school curricula.

Segregation: Even though the Civil War brought an end to slavery as such, Black Southerners continued to be marginalized through enforced segregation, which relegated them to separate—and usually worse—housing, jobs, education, and facilities. In the century following the Civil War, “Black Codes” and Jim Crow laws throughout much of the South ensured that Black Americans were kept poor and uneducated, diminishing their access to the opportunities afforded to their white counterparts. Black communities were often terrorized by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which still permeate the South today. Angelou’s memoir portrays her experience of these circumstances.

  • Angelou’s Experiences of Racism: The story told in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings takes place from the 1930s to the 1940s, beginning in Arkansas and ending in California. During Angelou’s childhood, the relationship between Black and white Southerners was based on fear and, in many cases, hostility. By Angelou’s account, the Arkansas town in which she grew up was so segregated that she did not know what white people looked like, nor did she fully believe white people existed.

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