This week is Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read. The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association complies a list of the 100 most challenged books each decade. The most recent list is here and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is #6 on it, which seems like a good reason to give it some attention now.
BOOK: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
AUTHOR: Maya Angelou
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1969
I must confess, I’ve never been a big fan of Maya Angelou’s poetry. (I am assuredly in the minority here, judging by the number of times “On the Pulse of the Morning” and “Phenomenal Woman” have turned up in my Facebook feed.) But this first volume of her autobiography is absolutely astonishing.
When, as a teenager, I found it among the young adult paperbacks at my local library, it was like nothing I’d ever read before: a narrative of the author’s early years, from a small, rural, segregated community in Arkansas, where she lived with her grandmother in the 1930s, to becoming a mother herself as a teenager in San Francisco in 1944. It explicitly describes the hardships of poverty, the menace of racism (one particularly harrowing scene involves her uncle spending a night in hiding under the potatoes and onions in her grandmother’s store for fear of the Ku Klux Klan), and her being molested and raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight. But the book is so much more than a parade of horrors: it shows the quiet dignity, courage, and hard work of her grandmother and of her community, the strength of the love between her family members, and the author’s resilience, determination, and growing love of literature. It’s also surprisingly funny in parts, but no summary can do it justice: Maya Angelou’s stories are so vivid that they must speak for themselves, so I encourage everyone to read them.
Anyway, please do stand up for good literature and against censorship, because, unfortunately, the painful things in this book are part of our shared human history, and part of life. We aren’t doing young people any favors by hiding this from them. Ms. Angelou (1928 – 2014) went on to become the first black “conductorette” on the San Francisco street cars, a civil rights activist, a dancer, a singer, a newspaper editor, an actor, a composer, a professor of American Studies, and a film director and producer, in addition to being an incredibly talented writer. Her story should be known, and no one could possibly tell it better.
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): Four-And-A-Half Whistles
HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon
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Lead-In Image: ocula/Shutterstock.com
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org