Banned books are a tricky category. I mean, if it’s truly banned, you need some back alley means to procure the book. The fact I legally borrowed a digital copy from a library belies the fact this book is banned.
My first experience of reading a banned book came in Spring of 2002 when my Grade 12 class was tasked with reading The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. Having just been introduced to the world of Canadian Literature, my heart was on fire and jumped right into the novel. The next class, our books were confiscated, and our teacher remained tight lipped as to why, beyond telling us that some parents took offense to some of the more graphic details. I was not dissuaded, and continued reading the book at home, borrowing a copy from my own mother. I later found out that the passage which caused all the uproar was in the initial pages, when the narrator attempts to tell the story death of her mother in childbirth. Apparently the narration of a baby exiting a birth canal, the same journey the majority of us in the world take, was inappropriate for a Grade 12 English class to read, even in a province whose curriculum dictates the teaching of procreation at least 3 times between kindergarten and graduation (though in all honesty, I only remember a very basic lesson on procreation happening once around grade 10, and yet an entire day was spent on raising babies).
Why yes, I did in fact go to high school in a conservative small town!
The book I chose for this challenge is more commonly banned. From 1990-2000, this was #3 on the American Library Association’s list of top banned books in the US. It’s main challengers point out the molestation and rape of an 8 year old girl, the questioning of sexual identity of 16 year old, and the difficulties faced by the Black American community during the 1930’s & 1940’s. From a twenty-first century perspective, the story of Marguerite Johnson is shocking, but that is all the more reason to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
What I found the most shocking is that almost 90 years later, racism is still pervasive. We still have the attitude that we can’t talk about rape. And we still have rampant misunderstandings about sexual identities. Perhaps if we didn’t try to “shield” our children from these controversial subjects, we might actually be moving society forward at a faster pace.
Outside of the controversy, this book was a good, relatively quick read. Angelou does a fabulous job of presenting her autobiography within the (normally fiction-based) genre of the bildungsroman (or “Coming of Age” novel, if you’re not up with German literary terms, though that is an over simplification #literaturenerd). There is, always, a degree of apprehension that I have when a coming of age novel (sorry if this is a spoiler, but come on, you probably read it in high school) ends with the birth of a child. It always is symbolic of the child having a chance at a “new life” because of the accomplishments of the parent, but it also suggests a cyclical nature that we never really get that much further ahead.
3.75/5 for Maya, who made me wish I was 7 or 8 years old again, just so I could be her friend.