Although not many knew, the late Maya Angelou was one of the most banned authors in America, for her debut novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book was regularly removed from school reading lists, taken out of school libraries, and discarded as indecent and inappropriate for young readers, writes Leslie Gordon Goffe from New York.
Since Angelou’s first book was published in 1969, the bestselling, highly acclaimed autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, conservative school officials and parent’s groups in small towns, and small-minded parts of the US, have crusaded to have Angelou’s masterpiece, a coming-of-age story which details how the author survived rape, teen pregnancy and racism in America, banned and outlawed.
In a 2009 interview, Maya Angelou expressed sorrow, and outrage, at those who banned books.
“I’m always sorry that people ban my books. Many times I’ve been called the most banned,” Angelou said, referring to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was nominated for a National Book Award and remained on The New York Times paperback bestseller list for two years. “Many times my books are banned by people who never read two sentences,” she explained.
Stopping young people reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is why the conservative Parents Against Bad Books in Schools group in Fairfax, Virginia, was formed.
Claiming it encouraged “profanity” and was filled with “descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct and torture”, the group succeeded in having Angelou’s book banned from a Virginia school district.
Book banners were successful elsewhere in the US’s deep South. In Alabama, four members of the State Textbook Committee, which decides what books are allowed in local schools, asked that the book be rejected because, they said, it preached “bitterness and hatred against whites”.
And, in Poolesville, Maryland, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was removed from the local high school reading list because, protestors charged, it was “likely to corrupt minors”.
But Maya Angelou rejected this and showed she would not be intimidated or silenced. In a 2013 interview, she said: “Let me tell so much truth, I want to tell the truth in my work. The truth will lead me to all.”
Efforts to ban Angelou’s book got it placed on the American Library Association’s list of the top banned books in the US. Between 1990 and 2000, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was ranked number three on the list.
Between 2001 and 2010, the book was ranked number six on the list of the most challenged and banned books.
Attacks on Maya Angelou’s writing continued although she was a bestselling, highly respected author who won the National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy, and was invited to read her work at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.
Despite the honours Angelou’s work received, the book banners have been relentless. In 2009 – in Huntington Beach, California – John Briscoe, a school board trustee, called for Angelou’s book to be removed from the school curriculum.
“It contains child molestation scenes, lesbian scenes, teen sex scenes and teen pregnancy scenes,” complained the Ocean View school board trustee at a city council meeting. “And these are not matters for children in middle school or any elementary school,” Briscoe added.
But the naysayers have not had it all their own way. In a victory for the freedom to read whatever one wants, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remained on the reading list at a school in Des Moines, Iowa – although a parent protested and objected to what she described as the book’s “inappropriately explicit sexual scenes.”
There were similar victories in schools in Florida and Tennessee, too.
In response to efforts to ban I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou once said: “I feel sorry for the young person who never gets to read it.”