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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Essay

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Inappropriate Tool for School In today’s society, more and more inappropriate material is becoming acceptable. Children are becoming more comfortable with bad language, corrupt movies, and offensive books as they are exposed to this material more frequently. The age they begin to learn about violence, drugs, and sex is lower than ever before. Today’s generation seems to be more experienced and knowledgeable about these shockingly crude things than most adults! Parents can not stop this maturing all together; however, they can slow it down by monitoring their children. It is a parent’s right to know what their child is learning, in case it goes against their family’s views. A parent should be completely comfortable with what their child is being taught in school.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a book that most parents do not feel comfortable with. Due to many inappropriate scenes and language, this book has been frequently challenged by parents and authority, being the third most challenged book in the 1930’s and 1990’s (Baldassarro). These shocking passages could offend and hurt some children; however, the book does have some redeeming qualities–if the reader is mature enough to appreciate and understand them. Therefore, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be allowed in libraries for those few who can really appreciate it’s merit, but should be restricted because it is not appropriate for all children.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has a legal history as it is frequently challenged and therefore should be restricted. The book’s graphic depiction of childhood rape, racism, and sexuality has caused it to be challenged or banned in many schools and libraries. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has had thirty-nine public challenges or bans since 1983 (Baldassarro). For example, in Kansas parents were uncomfortable with the book and attempted to ban it based on the “vulgar language, sexual explicitness, and violent imagery that is gratuitously employed” (Baldassarro). It was challenged for being on a Maryland high school reading list in 2001 because of its sexual content and foul language; it was banned for language and being too explicit in the description of rape and other sexual abuse in 2002; It was challenged in 2003 as required reading in Montana due to sexual exploration by teenagers, rape and homosexuality; and finally, it was challenged in Virginia school libraries by the group Parents Against Bad Books in Schools for “profanity and descriptions of drug abuse, sexually explicit conduct and torture.”

2005 resulted in a banning due to racism, homosexuality, sexual content, offensive language and being unsuitable for the age group (Baldassarro). With so many challenges and bans, one can see how controversial I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is. This book has been challenged for years, always offending parents as they find the material unacceptable. People usually only take the time to challenge a book if they feel strongly about it’s content. Going to court takes a lot of time and effort and obviously these parents are very uncomfortable with their children being exposed to this material. Therefore, due to it’s history in court, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is not appropriate for children and should be restricted in schools. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be restricted because it contains many inappropriate scenes and a lot of crude language. For example, the main character, Maya, is referred to as a “pretentious little bitch” in one of the opening scenes.

There are many other shocking words and phrases used throughout the book such as “nigger”, “shit”, “sex”, “titties”, “pubes”, “whore”, “hell”, “pervert”, “queer”, and “vagina” (PABBIS). At times, these words are unnecessary and take away from the overall merit of the book. Even if children in high school hear these things everyday from their peers, it is inappropriate for the students to hear them in a classroom setting. These words and phrases can make some kids uncomfortable and distract from their learning (Boudreau). In addition to the language, there are shocking scenes in this book as well. For example, the main character gets molested by her stepfather at eight years old, and vividly describes the experience: I awoke to a pressure, a strange feeling on my left leg… it was his ‘thing’ on my leg. He said, ‘Just stay right there, I ain’t gonna hurt you.’ I wasn’t afraid I knew that people did ‘it’ and they used their ‘things’ to accomplish the deed… Mr. F. put his hand between my legs. He threw back the blankets and his ‘thing’ stood up like a brown ear of corn.

He took my hand and said ‘Feel it.’ It was mushy and squirmy like the inside of a freshly killed chicken. He slowly dragged me on top of his chest. His right hand began moving so fast and his heart was beating so hard that I was afraid he would die. Finally he was quiet, and then came the nice part. He held me softly.. Then he rolled over, leaving me in a wet place and stood up…he said, ‘do you love your [brother]?… If you ever tell anyone what we did, I’ll have to kill [him].’ (Angelou 72) This scene is absolutely inappropriate. It goes into too much detail and can even make adults uncomfortable. And worse, there are more scenes like this, including another rape, a murder, and prostitution. Children should not be exposed to this type of behavior unless they are mature enough to handle it and most children are not (Boudreau). With such explicit material in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, it is not appropriate to be read in a school setting.

Students should not be forced to read this book in a classroom because it could offend and hurt some people with already low self esteem. Low self esteem is a very serious issue facing the majority of today’s teenagers.There are problems with depression, anorexia, and low self-esteem as teenagers desperately hope to look like someone else, or have what others have (Brothers). In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the main character, Maya, always hates herself as well. For example, she “longed for whiteness: white skin, blonde hair, decent clothes, and simple recognition” (Fox-Genovese 37). Maya always hoped for what she could not have, never being content with what she was given in life. This is not a good example for teenagers in this day-and-age to be looking up to or reading about. This shows kids that not accepting themselves is okay. Also, although this book is written to show the racism of the time period, it offends people of different colors.

They feel bad about themselves as Maya always believed she had “the wrong hair, and the wrong legs, but also the wrong face. She was the wrong color” (Smith 51). This phrase has a very negative connotation, using the word “wrong” to describe a skin color. This hurts kids of color who already struggle with their race and their own self-image. Also, throughout I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings the word “nigger” is used very often. Nigger was an informal slang word used by slave owners in reference to blacks. It derived from the word “negro.”

Slave owners used the word to refer to their slaves so that they did not have to dignify them with a real name. It is considered insulting to black people because it is a symbol of the way they used to be treated and it can “signify that they are undeserving of a birth-given name, simply because their skin is dark” (Barns). The frequent use of this word in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings can still seriously offend someone of color. This book can definitely hurt or offend people with already low self-esteem and therefore should not be read in schools.

Despite this bad material, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has some redeeming qualities for the mature reader. Because this book is an autobiography, it makes it more relatable because the events actually happened. Angelou wrote this book to “probe her identity, to stop lying to herself to cover her fear. She turns to her pen to atone for past falsities and to acknowledge the truth about herself” (Fox-Genovese 37). Angelou was brave enough to share her own story with the world, and a mature reader could recognize and appreciate this. The fact that it is an autobiography creates a stronger effect as the reader can picture the story actually happening in real life (Didion 34). Since Angelou lived through it, this book is a rare piece of social history of the time and a personal look into the lives of all African Americans when “they were forced to face the continuation of slave mentality and racism” (Bloom 16).

But, as it adds to the story for those mature readers, it also can make the book less fit for reading. If the reader is already uncomfortable with the storyline, the fact that it actually happened can unsettle the reader even more, but if the reader can handle it, the fact that it is an autobiography adds merit. The way that Angelou “introduces herself as Maya, a ‘tender-hearted’ child, allows her story to range in an extraordinary fashion along the field of human emotion,” allowing the mature reader to connect with the characters easier (Kelly 24).

Ernece B. Kelly recognizes that this book may not have excellent syntax, but that it makes up for the lack thereof with “the insight she offers into the effects of the social conditioning on the lifestyle and self-concept of a black child” growing up in the South in the 1930’s (24). Despite it’s inappropriate content, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings definitely has some literary merit, giving the reader hands on knowledge of what truly happened during that time period. But, the reader would have to be mature enough to look past the inappropriate material to truly appreciate the novel. For a sophisticated reader, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is full of redeeming qualities.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings can offer some insight and knowledge for some steady readers, but can offend and hurt others who are not ready for it. Therefore, it should be allowed in libraries, for the few who will understand and appreciate it’s input, but it should not be on a required or suggested reading list. This society attempts to “turn a blind eye to actual events which it deems too troubling to admit to, let alone deal with” (Baldassarro). This book is about real situations that actually affected real people and real lives. By banning this book altogether, schools would be covering up the truth and pretending it never happened. Therefore, the book must be available in the library to any student who is interested in reading it on their own time.

Schools however, cannot require I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a class reading assignment. Despite the literary merit, there are too many students that are not ready to overlook it’s shocking language and detailed scenes. It should be up to the individual student and their parents whether or not they are ready to read and understand this book. A teacher can never assume that a student can handle such a book and by assigning this book, a teacher is assuming that all their students are prepared for the inappropriate material, which is usually not the case. Schools must find middle ground, being careful not to offend anyone. Therefore, to make the book available to those who will appreciate it, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will be in the library, but to protect those who are not ready, the book will not be assigned in a classroom.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be available in libraries for those few who can appreciate it’s merit, but should not be assigned because it is very inappropriate. This book has been challenged almost forty times by passionate parents. It contains crude language and horrid scenes that are not appropriate for children to be reading. This book is a bad example for teenagers with already bad self-image as the main character struggles with self esteem as well. Despite these drawbacks, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings does have some redeeming qualities.

Because it is an autobiography, the reader has a better insight into her life during this time period. Because this book can teach some mature readers that are willing to look past the shocking material, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be available in libraries. But because of the offensive, inappropriate material, this book cannot be read in classrooms. This compromise will make parents more comfortable as they can control what their child is learning. This control can be important in today’s society as children are becoming more and more accepting of inappropriate material.


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