I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Study Guide

Maya Angelou

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Published in 1969, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells the story of the author's childhood in Arkansas, St. Louis, and San Francisco. A story of hardship, violence, and love, it is filled with "rich, dazzling images" and "quietly and gracefully portrays and pays tribute" to the Southern community in which Angelou spent her younger years.

Despite the story's violent and sexual scenes—and frequent bans—it is frequently taught in schools and colleges around the United States. It was nominated for a National Book Award and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for more than two years. In the decades since its publication, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has become a classic of literary autobiography that portrays Angelou's painful childhood with humor and love.

1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the catalyst for Banned Books Week.

In 1982 a copy of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was displayed in a tiny prison cell at the American Booksellers Association convention. This highlighted the attempts to ban and censor the autobiography. The outcry caused by the display was strong enough to lead to the development of Banned Books Week, which attempts to stop censorship by focusing on books that have been banned around the country.

2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most frequently banned books in the United States.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was number six on the American Library Association's list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for the first decade of the 21st century, just below John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. The most frequent reasons for challenges against the book include charges of sexually explicit language, racism, and inclusion of homosexuality.

3. Angelou's poetry reading at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993 boosted sales of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

At President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, Maya Angelou read aloud her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning." The publicity resulted in an increase in sales of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings of 500 percent, forcing the publisher to go back to press to reprint nearly half a million copies of her work.

4. Angelou wrote the screenplay for a television adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

In 1979 CBS aired the television adaptation of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, with a screenplay by Maya Angelou. This was not Angelou's first screenplay; the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia, which she wrote, was the first movie written by an African American to be filmed.

5. Angelou wrote greeting cards for Hallmark.

In 2002 Hallmark began offering a line of greeting cards and other items written by Maya Angelou. When her editor protested to Angelou, she responded, "If I'm America's poet, or one of them, then I want to be in people's hands. All people's hands, people who would never buy a book."

6. Angelou received more than 50 honorary degrees.

Angelou received more than 50 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities, including Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Northeastern, Mills College, Lafayette, and Eastern Connecticut State. On her website, she called herself "Doctor," leading some critics to complain that because her degrees were honorary, she did not deserve the title.

7. Angelou always wrote in a rented hotel room.

Even when Maya Angelou was at home, she would pay for a hotel room in which to write. Everything had to be taken off the walls; art was a distraction to her. She would leave home at 6 a.m.; go to the hotel; lie on the bed with a thesaurus, a dictionary, a Bible, an ashtray, and a bottle of sherry; and write till about 12:30 p.m.

8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was written following a dinner party conversation.

Maya Angelou's mentor was James Baldwin, the celebrated African American author. He took her to a dinner party in 1969 at the home of Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist well connected in the publishing world. There, Angelou told stories of her early life. The guests were so enthralled that in the morning Feiffer's wife called an editor and told him to convince Angelou to write her story.

9. Angelou wrote her autobiography in part because she was told she couldn't.

Editor Robert Loomis, who eventually became Angelou's editor, challenged her with the idea of writing a literary autobiography, saying it was nearly impossible to do. Rising to the challenge of creating an autobiography as literature, Angelou composed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

10. While appearing in the film Poetic Justice in 1993, Angelou made rapper Tupac Shakur cry.

Unaware of Shakur's identity as a controversial rapper, Angelou pulled the rapper aside to counsel him because she had heard he was fighting with another man. Initially Shakur wasn't open to Angelou's interference, but he quieted when he heard these words:

When was the last time anyone told you how important you are? Did you know people stood on auction blocks and were bought and sold so that you could stay alive today?

Shakur began to cry, and Angelou hugged him.

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