28 September 2010

Banned Books Week: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a hard book for me to read when I was a teenager.  Not vocabulary-wise, but understanding-wise.  I am about as opposite from Maya Angelou as you can get - white, middle-class, privileged, two loving parents, a happy and uneventful childhood in Iowa - and it took a huge mental adjustment just to visualize her childhood and the events she describes in her memoir.  I have to confess I that I thought it was a novel at first; I was so unbelievably naive.  How could people act like that?  Hate someone just because of skin color or hurt a little girl?  Then I started putting together all sorts of other information that I'd learned in school and read in books....yes, Maya Angelou's story was real, as real as my own, and holy crap.

Slowly, I started to find bits that connected me with the little girl and teenager of Dr. Angelou's memoir.  She loved to read, so did I.  We were both dancers and liked the stage.  Even though horrible things happened to her as a child (and I later learned that she had a very hard time of it for quite a while, working through poverty to raise her son), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells one woman's story of how she gained courage and tried to overcome her past.  For those who have read Laure Halse Anderson's Speak, the protagonist Melinda Scordino becomes as selective-mute after her assault; Dr. Angelou tells of her fear of speaking after her attacker is found beaten to death, that she felt her voice caused the man's demise.  Both the fictional Melinda and the real Maya learn to find their voices.

I no longer remember how I happened to be reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; I know it was my personal copy, not borrowed from the library, and I was just reading it for fun.  My mother is a huge reader of biographies, we had shelves stuffed full of bios and memoirs, so reading a memoir "for fun" and not "for school" was pretty normal at my house.  I also suspect my mother had already read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, although I've never asked her, so she knew what I was getting into.  I really think that was her way of introducing me to a situation that we just didn't experience ever in Iowa, so that I could begin to understand racism as a concept and understand how treating somone as less-than-a-person on the basis of skin color is absolutely ridiculous.  African-American History Month was always celebrated in school but we never got into the gritty, dirty parts of history.

It's the gritty bits that get people up in arms.  The book covers all manner of "hot-button" subjects: racism, sexism, sexual violence, child abuse, heterosexual sex, homosexual sex/confusion over sexual orientation, teen pregnancy, and "vulgar" language, to name a few.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the third most challenged book of 1990-1999 and the sixth most challenged 2000-2009 according to the ALA so people are getting their knickers in a twist all over the place.  It's like failing to see the forest for the trees.  Y'all want to stick your head in the sand and act like it's going to traumatize teens (and I'm talking an average of twelve and up here, the actual structure of the writing is too complex for younger kids), then you go ahead, stick your head in the sand and pretend that nothing bad ever happened to anyone.  But then you miss the truth - and the beauty of Dr. Angelou's writing.  She is a true storyteller - she sings loud and clear.  Dr. Angelou is an inspiring woman.  Young men and women need inspiration.

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