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Bourke’s Banned Bookshelf: ‘Shades of deeper meaning’

This week's banned book feature is "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch
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Imagine putting a ban on someone’s life experiences.

Theresa Bourke headshot

That’s essentially what has happened to Maya Angelou, a celebrated American writer who detailed the traumatic events of her childhood growing up in Stamps, Arkansas in her 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Numerous challenges — many of which were successful — made Angelou one of the most banned authors in the country. Her first autobiography was No. 10 on the American Library Association’s most frequently banned and challenged books list in 2007 and No. 88 on the Top 100 for 2010-2019.

‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928 in St. Louis, Angelou and her older brother Bailey were shipped off to Arkansas as small children to live with their grandmother in the small town of Stamps. Her grandmother owned the only general store in town for Black residents.

As a child, Angelou didn’t feel like she was attractive, like her glamorous mother who lived in St. Louis or her brother with his perfect skin and smooth black hair. But she threw herself into books and school, reading as much as she could in between shifts helping out at the store.

When she was 7, Angelou and her brother went to live with family in St. Louis, but that locale was short-lived, after being raped by her mom’s boyfriend. Angelou describes the event in as much detail as a 7-year-old can understand.

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She soon goes back to Arkansas, where she again takes up residence with her grandmother after the sexual assault trauma and its aftermath renders her mute.

The autobiography, which is Angelou’s first of seven, follows her up until she’s a teenager and living with her mother in San Francisco during WWII.

Angelou’s writing has a way of transporting the reader to another time and place, of bringing to life the hardships growing up Black in the pre-Civil Rights Act era and the realities of being seen as less than. Her prose is beautiful and her storytelling talent evident.

Caging the songbird

The efforts to remove “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” from school classrooms and libraries around the country are numerous.

A 2003 challenge at schools in Fairfax, Virginia, led to the formation of Parents Against Bad Books in Schools. The group’s website says its purpose is to identify books that might be “bad” in schools, though it goes on to say there is no one definition of “bad,” and what might be “bad” to some people might not be for others. I feel like that disclaimer just goes to show how short-sighted book challenges are because no matter what they contain, they might be valuable for someone, so it shouldn’t be up to a select few individuals to decide who gets to see them.

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One of the most recent attempts to ban “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was in 2021, when the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District Board in Palmer, Alaska, voted 5-2 to remove five books from its curriculum. Angelou’s autobiography was among them, as were “The Things They Carried,” “Catch-22,” “Invisible Man” and “The Great Gatsby.” School Board members cited “sexual content” as the chief concern, while one critic chided Angelou’s work as containing “anti-white messaging.”

While there are passages in the book where a young Angelou expresses frustration with white people after certain events in her life, it’s hard to blame her for it. Imagine being 12 years old and looking forward to your middle school graduation, something you worked so hard for and something that not all kids where you come from achieve. But once you’re up on stage, excited to celebrate your accomplishments with your classmates, a politician comes in to tell you that you can do great things — within the confines of your race, that is. The following passage from that scene really stuck with me.

“Graduation, the hush-hush magic time of frills and gifts and congratulations and diplomas, was finished for me before my name was called. The accomplishment was nothing. The meticulous maps, drawn in three colors of ink, learning and spelling decasyllabic words, memorizing the whole of ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ — it was for nothing. Donleavy had exposed us.

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“We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.”

I can’t imagine how it would feel to have someone take away all your hopes and dreams so completely at such a young age. I think I’d hold some animosity there too.

But by telling her story, Angelou spoke to those who desperately needed her words. The copy of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” I lent from the Brainerd Public Library included a powerful foreward by Oprah Winfrey, who wrote about discovering Angelou’s book at the age of 15 and realizing someone else had been through the exact same things she had — right down to the sexual assault — and came out stronger because of them.

Yes, rape is a heavy topic for kids to talk about, and it can be uncomfortable territory for parents. I get that. But life is uncomfortable. So many times, the children forced into these unimaginable scenarios don’t understand what’s happening and don’t know how to talk about it. So can’t bringing awareness to these realities be beneficial for kids? And what about the kids who have experienced trauma and as a result feel isolated and have lost all hope? Shouldn’t they be able to know they aren’t alone?

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Related Topics: BOOKS
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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