I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and other banned books

I almost missed it; but never fear I am making my entry on the last day. Yes folks, it is that time of year again: Banned Book Week.  Last year, I managed to blog twice when I wrote Bookworm and Forty-Three Percent, about And Tango Makes Three and how many of the 100 most contested books of the decade that I have read.  This year, I got a little behind because this past week has been crazy– not to mention I have so many political posts floating around in my head.

So, for those of you who do not know what Banned Book Week is, it is a week when we celebrate our freedom to read anything and not be censored by other peoples opinions, thoughts, morals, etc. It is also a week when we should be thankful that children can choose what they want to read.  According to the BBW site:

BBW celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.

Without further ado, I am posting this years 10 most challenged books.

1. “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell; Reasons: Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

2. “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier; Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Violence

3. “Olive’s Ocean,” by Kevin Henkes; Reasons: Sexually Explicitly, Offensive Language

4. “The Golden Compass,” by Philip Pullman; Reasons: Religious Viewpoint

5. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain; Reasons: Racism

6. “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker; Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language

7. “TTYL,” by Lauren Myracle; Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

8. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou; Reasons: Sexually Explicit

9. “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie Harris; Reasons: Sex Education, Sexually Explicit

10. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky; Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Of the books on this list that I have read, I have loved everyone.  I already talked about And Tango Makes Three, which has now been top of the list for two consecutive years.  This year, I am going to jump further down the list to Lucky Number 8: I know why the caged bird sings. The title of this book is based on a poem written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, although often attributed to Maya Angelou,  that goes like this:

A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
and floats downstream till the current ends
and dips his wing in the orange suns rays and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

I first “read” the whole book when I was traveling across the country with my parents. It was our habit, as we drove everywhere, to rent books on tape from our local library.  This kept us from arguing about what music to listen to and made the drive go faster. I know that over the years we listened to tons of books, but the only two I vividly remember hearing were Love in the Time of Cholera and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The latter was read by it’s author and the haunting of her voice as she read her own autobiography has stuck with me.  Yes, it was violent. Yes, it was filled with racism. Yes, it did contain brutal rape scenes. Yes, it did not paint a pretty picture of the American Dream. And, yes, it was her life; a life that has parallels to so many other children and so many pieces of history.  This book, through her reading, made the think about the dark history of this country.  It is a dark history that we have not completely left behind.  Not knowing it, censoring it, will not make it untrue. The story confronts racism, poverty, rape, the need children have for love and approval by adults, feeling like an outsider, and so much more.  In the end, I found this story also to be about strength of spirit and that, fundamentally, is what I remember.

Here are some other great blog posts for Banned Book Week:



  1. Excellent post for an excellent cause, though you left out the book with arguably the longest, most stubborn, and most pervasive history of suppression by authorities in civilization’s history: the Bible.

    Dense reading, I know, but you don’t need to be a Christian or even a Christian sympathizer to find it one of the most fascinating reading challenges out there. (Granted, I recommend you skip over the long recountings of family trees!)

  2. Hi Charlie. Thanks for visiting and your comments. My list was specifically the 10 most contested books of 2007. This was compiled by the American Library Association. Here is how they compile the list:

    How is the List of Most Challenged Books Tabulated?

    The American Library Association (ALA) collects information from two sources: newspapers and reports submitted by individuals, some of whom use the Challenge Database Form. All challenges are compiled into a database. Reports of challenges culled from newspapers across the country are compiled in the bimonthly Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom (published by the ALA, $40 per year); those reports are then compiled in the Banned Books Week Resource Guide. Challenges reported to the ALA by individuals are kept confidential. In these cases, ALA will release only the title of the book being challenged, the state and the type of institution (school, public library). The name of the institution and its town will not be disclosed.

  3. Aha! Careless reading of the post on my part…I missed the part where it was an established ranking. Probably should have recognized the list, in fact, now that I think about it.

    My mother, who’s been a librarian on one level or another for twenty-five years or so, used to have a t-shirt bearing a long list of the top most frequently banned books in modern history. Young’un that I was, I was flabbergasted to see the Bible listed among them.

  4. The reason for censure of these books, in many cases, was not sexual explicity or representation of violence, but the fact that they discuss and show racism in a realistic way. It is important to show what is absent from a society, because what does not appear, like censored books, helps define the people and diversity of a place or nation by revealing the myths that control them (i.e. American dreams and fantasies).
    When I moved to Brazil in 1986 after growing up in a suburban WASPy New Jersey “dry” town (full of alcoholics),  I noticed that Brazilian late-nite non-cable TV was showing a number of films that discuss racism or show aspects of black urban culture, films from the seventies, that I had never seen on US TV, which surprised me because I had been a latenite old-movie-seen-on-TV film freak.
    So why were these films, like “Uptown Saturday Night” and so many many more absent from public television when I was growing up? I realized that it was that same paternalistic fear that treats the young and the nation as children(18th-century children) telling them that everything is all right in a world where kids are often unprotected in their own homes or don’t have one. These filmes of black seventies culture, although many not having the poetic value and budget of the films that appear today, did show and somehow document the crude truths of aspects of American reality beyond the daydreams of suburbia or business America and the politically correct. Films that show the diverse aspects of American reality go beyond the homogenized picture that public nj schools taught me in the seventies. Such films would have and can still “make people think” and even cause them to “take action” and , therefore, needed to be silenced – but the criteria of exclusion is called “bad taste” or “politically incorrect” – Different names for what tastes sour in our mouths that we don’t want to swallow – that which is not aesthetically pleasurable, and makes us feel uncomfortable on the sofa and doesn’t appear to have a simple happy ending.

  5. Alas, your endorsement of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” misses the rationale behind challenging the book entirely. The book is more than a “biographical” work by the author, it is a teaching platform, and the lessons the author draws are artfully unprofound reflections of her own poor moral upbringing.

    1) The author justifies reverse racism & payback racisim, and trys to sell it.
    2) The author glorifies the political corruption in St. Louis that her mother’s family was a part of.
    3) The author supports the meanness and murdering violence of her own family.
    4) The author belittles her grandmother’s Christianity, caricatures it, and equates religious conversion with the solace found at the local good time lady’s brothel.
    5) The author glorifies criminal activity by blacks, holds black criminals up as heroes, and thinks it is a shame that blacks are not involved in more of the white collar types of crimes.
    6) The author tacitly supports the poor sexual ethics of both of her parents, and never challenges their promiscuity, even though it led to her own rape in St. Louis, and her stabbing by her father’s lover in L.A.
    7) She “admires” her mother as being “honest” because she warned her business partner before she shot him twice.
    8) The author seduced a boy to prove to herself she was not a lesbian, then concealed her pregnancy from her parents for 8 months and 1 week. She took pride in this, and refused to equate her deception of her parents with lying.
    9) The author’s brother is loved and adored even though he, as a 10 year old, had sex with a 15 year old, and brought numerous other little girls into a makeshift tent and rolled around on them, imitating the sex act.
    10) Up until the rape that devastated her, the author portrays that she liked the sexual activity with her mother’s lover, and her only hurt from those encounters was when he would withdraw from her in guilt.

    This is no heroic book about overcoming racisim. It is a book about giving in to poor teaching, and about becoming a racist herself. Only one major character proves to have any real virtue at all, and that is her paternal grandmother. Angelou shows that she succumed to racism by becoming an advocate of payback racism herself. That is the main lesson of the book; that payback racisim is to be applauded. Sad.

    The author has not risen above racism. “Caged Bird” seductively perpetuates it, and revels whenever a perceived payback occurs. Follow her teaching and America becomes Bosnia or Palestine. And that is why this is not a book our children should read.

  6. I had to do a project for my grade 10 English class over a banned book. We had to write two different types of letters: one being why the book should be banned and the other, being about why the book should not be banned. I chose the book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. And while doing this project, I briefly am reading this post. It has been pretty helpful and given me a good idea on what points I want to make in my letters.

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