Let me point out it is not Banned Books Week, not for another few months. But I got my regular email from the Strand Book Store in New York, and today’s email encourages readers to seek out banned and challenged books. I was very startled to realize one of my favorite books of all time, a book that enriched and expanded my understanding of fellow humans, has been banned or challenged in a number of schools and libraries.,
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first volume in a series of autobiographical works by the woman who become the first African-American female poet laureate in U.S. History, Maya Angelou. She is a true Renaissance woman with an incredible story to tell.
As a teen, I found the paperback in a bookstore on a trip to Montgomery, read the blurb on the back and thought it was something that would interest me.
It did more than interest me. It drew me into the world of young black girl growing up with her grandmother, a store owner in racially divided Stamps, Arkansas in the 1930s. Angelou’s lyrical prose had me gasping with laughter at some of the passages and weeping in sorrow at others. It’s exhilirating and harrowing. It’s an important piece of American history as it was lived.
I have re-read it a number of times over the years until I practically wore that paperback out. I purchased the other volumes in her autobiographical series and they are all very much worth reading. But IKWTCBS remains my favorite.
So why has it been banned and challenged? Angelou includes a candid chapter about her childhood rape by her mother’s boyfriend and the repercusions–how she basically quit talking for two years. There is nothing titillating about this memoir, only her clear-eyed honesty, which can be hard to face. But face it we should. I am very grateful no one ever took that book out of my teenaged hands and said, “You can’t read this.” My life would have been the poorer for it.