ILS 503-01 Foundations of Librarianship
Report on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
March 24, 2008
In Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she recounts her years growing up as an African American girl in the United States during the Depression and post World War II. In sharing her life, Ms. Angelou gives first-hand accounts of racism, feelings of displacement, and her rape by her mother’s boyfriend when she was eight years old. Because of these and other topics, Caged Bird has been consistently challenged and appears on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 (ALA, n.d.). The title is derived from a stanza in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, Sympathy, first published in 1899 (PotW.org, 1996). Dunbar was the first African-American to achieve national recognition as a poet. His poetry was well received by both White and African-American readers as he was able to write in the vernacular of both audiences (The Ohio Historical Society, 1996-2008). Like the poem, the book speaks to the disenfranchised.
“It was the same old quandary. I had always lived it. There was an army of adults, whose motives and movements I just couldn’t understand and who made no effort to understand mine”.
The young Maya states what many young adults and displaced people feel when forced to live in a society within in which they do not have a voice. Her statement in Chapter 23 after the Mayor spoke at her graduation, “It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense”. Anyone who feels a lack of self-determination and not being part of the larger society understands the pain she felt after hearing the speech. Whether when the book was published in 1969 or now, women and young adults of every race, creed, and color identify with her frustration and use her voice to demand recognition and validation. Now as then, the establishment, uncomfortable with the subject matter, seeks removal of the book from required reading lists.
Where do I fit in? Why was I separated from my parents? Don’t they love me? Teenagers can identify with these self-recriminations. Her vivid descriptions of sexual abuse, rape, and the subsequent murder of her Mother’s boyfriend are reasons Caged Bird is challenged. One parent’s removal request stated, “It seems as if some Hamilton High School teachers are intent on removing whatever shreds of innocence our children have left." This even after their child was given an alternative. The school board kept the book in the curriculum and as one student put it, "If [students] are not responsible enough to read this book, that is a problem with their parents.…This should not be something before our school board today."(People For the American Way (PFAW), 2003), The scenes are disturbing as the reader experiences the degradation and fear first-hand. However, depending on the maturity of the reader, these events could provide the basis for candid conversations about sexual abuse and rape. One 11th Grade English teacher opted to read the book out loud in class. She reported her students’ lively debate on the relativity of the scene within the story and Ms. Angelou’s life with no objectionable reactions (Coeyman, 1998).
Another of the main reasons cited to remove Caged Bird from library shelves is racism. Since 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee accused it of encouraging "bitterness and hatred toward white people and encourages deviant behavior because of references to lesbianism, premarital sex and profanity." Not all schools removed the book from their classes and libraries (The File Room, n.d.). In Anne Arundel County, Maryland in 2006, the Superintendent of Schools removed the book from ninth-grade English classes after a few parents called the book "trash" and "anti-White”. One parent supporting its banning stated, "It is perfectly understandable for it to be anti-White, because it was written in 1969....(Angelou) portrays White people as being horrible, nasty, stupid people....and I don't appreciate being portrayed that way..." (“Maryland”, 2006). Ms. Angelou’s description of the “powhitetrash” girls’ actions towards her grandmother illustrates her understanding of the relationship that blacks were below “powhitetrash” which were below whites in the South. However, her grandmother shows her character by not reacting to the girls. Additionally, during the revival meeting in Chapter 18, the minister’s sermon to all religions under the one tent preaches that charity does not mean “because I pays you what you due, you got to call me master”. This is the basis of many civil rights movement speeches. It is especially heart wrenching to read the description of the African American community in the Store listening to Joe Louis become the Heavy Weight Boxing Champion of the world. However, the crowd is unable to walk home at night in rural the South for fear of lynching. Although these events happened in the 1930’s, they resound for the displaced and disenfranchised to claim their right in the society. (Back to the top)
Ms. Angelou’s difficult life events can be distressing and have a powerful effect on a reader of any age. However, should this book be banned? The First Amendment forbids the United States Congress to restrict freedom of speech or press. Did our forefathers intend to include school and library boards? Many teachers encourage parental participation with their children’s education. In fact, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recognizes that parents have a right to choose what their children will not read. So that parents know when to select an alternate book, NCTE recommends a book discussion before book selection with special consideration of controversial material. Does that mean an appropriate or correct action for one child appropriate for all children? Since the 1990’s, United States populace has reflected the Government’s conservative leanings. In 1995-96, the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act (PRRA) went before Congress. The Act is a product of the Christian Coalition's “Contract with the American Family” stating that a parent has the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children (PFAW, 1998) Many municipalities had and have mechanisms in place to allow a family to “opt out” of a sex or AIDS education class as well as specific activities or assignments that conflict with their religious beliefs. Although PRRA has yet to be passed, many challenges and requests for banning books use PRRA as a cornerstone. Parents Against Bad Books in Schools (PABBIS) was established in 2001 in Virginia with the purpose to request that parental consent be giving up front to allow a parent to “opt in” or “opt out” (PFAW, 1998). Their website states its goal is to educate other parents on “bad books” and to remove them from school libraries. Although PABBIS doesn’t define “bad”, there is a list of questions from which parents can determine a book’s appropriateness for their child (PFAW, 2003). A similar organization in Kansas, Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools (ClassKC.org), encourages “the public schools to help our children develop a love of reading and gain a rigorous literary education through excellent literature choices”. Since 2005, Caged Bird has been one of fourteen books ClassKC.org seeks to replace with equal material because it contains obscenities, vulgar language, or sexually explicit material (ClassKC.org, 2004-05). In an interesting perspective supporting book challenges, Bob Simons, president and founder of conservative Christian groups, National Association of Christian Educators and Citizens for Excellence in Education, states "when schools and librarians remove books [such as "politically incorrect" books], it's called deselection. When we object to a book, it's called censorship. Where's the fairness in that?” (Goodale, 1996). However, his quote for the endorsement of literature that "supports the good, healthy, positive side of life. Characters, like Maya Angelou's. If you actually read some of her stuff, only a depraved mind would write it." could be perceived as undermining his argument. Although uncomfortable to read, the characters in Caged Bird are not fictitious and told from her perspective. I can understand parents want to protect their child. However children are exposed to many of these facts of life on a daily basis. Young adults identify with Ms. Angleou’s coming of age questions and experiences. I do not agree with banning any book that provides for discussion on the historic relevance of an issue, event or perception such as Mein Kampf. The parental right process, as outlined by NCTE, and a school’s self-government to allow parents to “opt out or in”. A creative solution was proposed in Wake County, North Carolina. In 1987, Caged Bird was removed from the high school required reading list because of the rape scene (“Humanities Interactive”, 2007). An entry in the May 22, 2007 Board of Education Meeting Minutes’ public portion showed that four middle school students were to participate in Project Citizen. The students identified “book banning” as a problem in their community. As part of the project, the students submitted they would affect change with a signed petition to fix book banning, to make a book list for their school, and lastly to write a letter to First Lady Laura Bush urging her to consider rating books, so that they will not be banned (WCPSS.org, 2007) Although no further references to the success of their endeavor were found, the students are commended for expressing their belief that that their voice need to be part of the dialogue and ultimate decision. All sides of the book banning debate need to critically assess their arguments to ensure one group’s values are not placed on another without careful consideration of individual situations. "Not every book will be right for every reader, but the freedom to choose for ourselves from a full array of possibilities is a hard-won right that we must not take for granted in this country," said Judith Platt, director of the Association of American Publishers' Freedom to Read program. (ALA, 2001). This year is Ms. Angelou’s 80th birthday. As the valedictorian in Caged Bird lead the assembly in song to restore the auditorium’s dignity after the Mayor’s speech, the Caged Bird sings for us all.
Angelou book attacked in Wisconsin. (Nov 24, 2006). UPI News Track, p. NA. Retrieved March 9, 2008, from General OneFile via Gale: http://find.galegroup.com/ips/start.do?prodId=IPS
American Library Association. (2001). Libraries, bookstores celebrate 20 years of Banned Books Week. Retrieved March 16, 2008 from http://www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=archive&template=/contentmanagement/contentdisplay.cfm&ContentID=16818
American Library Association. (2007). The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 – 2000. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/bbwlinks/100mostfrequently.htm
Back to School with the Religious Right. Censorship (2003) Retrieved March 16, 2008 from http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=3655
“Battle lines.” (March-April 1996). Index on Censorship, 25, n2. p.130(2). Retrieved March 9, 2008, from General OneFile via Gale: http://find.galegroup.com/ips/start.do?prodId=IPS
Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Sophomore Communications Arts II. (2004-2005). Retrieved March 16, 2008 from http://www.classkc.org/review.php?book=I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings
Coeyman, Marjorie. (May 19, 1998) Teachers Tackle 'Uncomfortable' Books Head On. The Christian Science Monitor. May 19, 1998 edition. Retrieved March 9, 2008 from http://www.csmonitor.com/1998/0519/051998.feat.feat.4.html
Constitutional Liberties. People For the American Way Celebrates Banned Book Week September 20th – 27th 2003. (2003) Retrieved March 16, 2008 from http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=12122
First Amendment Center. (2008) About the First Amendment. Retreived March 17, 2008 from http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/about.aspx?item=about_firstamd
Goodale, G. (December 6, 1996). Who Decides Which Books A Child May Read? The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved March 16, 2008 from http://www.csmonitor.com/1996/1206/120696.feat.books.1.html
Humanities Interactive. (2007) Literature and Our Imaginative Heritage. Retrieved March 16, 2008 from http://www.humanities-interactive.org/literature/bonfire/index.html?collectionVar=LiteratureStop&pageVar=1
Leonard, Frances. (n.d.) The Bonfire of Liberties: Censorship of the Humanities. Retrieved March 9, 2008 from http://www.humanities-interactive.org/literature/bonfire/censorship_brochure.html
McClurg, J. (September 22, 1996). For pure satisfaction, try reading a book censors want to ban :[statewide edition]. Hartford Courant, p. G.3. Retrieved March 8, 2008, from Hartford Courant database. (Document id: 14882147).
Maryland schools ban books by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. Jan 26, 1998 v93 n9 p12(1)Jet, 93, n9. p.12(1). Retrieved March 9, 2008, from Expanded Academic ASAP via Gale: http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=EAIM
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Source: Censorship, A World Encyclopedia, D. Jones Submitted By: NCA http://www.thefileroom.org/documents/dyn/DisplayCase.cfm/id/796
Parental Rights Issues Raised by the Parental Rights Initiatives. Challenges to Curriculum Opt Out vs. Opt In. (1998). People for the American Way. Retrieved March 17, 2008 from http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=1998
Poem of the Week. (1996). Dunbar, Paul Laurence. Sympathy. Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.potw.org/archive/potw219.html
“"The Chocolate War" tops 2004 most challenged book list." American Library Association. 2005. http://www.ala.org/ala/pressreleases2005/februarya/2004mostchallengedbook.htm (Accessed 19 Mar, 2008)
The Ohio Historical Society. (1996-2008). The Dunbar House. Retrieved March 9,2008 from http://ohsweb.ohiohistory.org/places/sw03/index.shtml
Wake County Board of Education. (2008) May 22, 2007 Board Meeting Minutes. Retrieved March 17, 12008 from http://www.wcpss.net/Board/minutes/2007.html