The first of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, deals with weighty issues like rape, identity, and racism. When it came out in 1969, it was one of the first books to honestly depict the experiences of a black woman growing up in the south.
1. ANGELOU WAS MUTE FOR 5 YEARS AFTER A SEXUAL ASSAULT.
Much of Caged Bird centers on trauma Angelou experienced as a child. When she was 8, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She testified at his trial, but though he was convicted, he only served one day in jail. Soon after, he was beaten to death, most likely by Angelou’s uncles. “I thought my voice had killed him,” she later said. “So I stopped talking for five years.” Finally, a neighbor named Bertha Flowers insisted that Angelou read poetry aloud, which helped her regain her voice.
2. A DINNER PARTY WITH JAMES BALDWIN LED TO A PUBLISHING DEAL.
By age 40, Angelou had had many careers, working as a journalist, poet, civil rights activist, and singer. She was also a member of the Harlem Writers Guild, where she became friends with author James Baldwin. In 1968, Baldwin took her to a dinner party at the cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s house. Angelou charmed guests with stories of her childhood; the next day, Feiffer’s wife called editor Robert Loomis at Random House and said that he should get Angelou to write a memoir. When he brought it up, Angelou said, “Absolutely not.” Loomis replied, "It’s just as well, because to write an autobiography as literature is just about impossible.” Angelou, who liked a challenge, said, “I’ll start tomorrow.”
3. HER WRITING RITUAL INVOLVED A DECK OF CARDS AND A BOTTLE OF SHERRY.
To get her stories out on paper, Angelou created an elaborate writing ritual. She got up at 5 a.m. and checked into a hotel. “I take a hotel room and ask them to take everything off the walls so there’s me, the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus and some good, dry sherry, and I’m at work by 6:30,” she said. She wrote on yellow legal pads while lying on the bed, sipped sherry, and played Solitaire when she needed a break. "I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning," she told The Paris Review.
4. THE TITLE CAME FROM A PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR POEM.
African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of Angelou’s favorite writers. The title comes from his poem "Sympathy":
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.
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5. ANGELOU WAS THE FIRST BLACK FEMALE STREETCAR CONDUCTOR IN SAN FRANCISCO.
Caged Bird covers some interesting trivia: At 16, Angelou decided to become a streetcar conductor in San Francisco because she liked the uniforms. When she went to the office to apply, they wouldn’t give her an application because she was black. So Angelou’s mother told her to go every day and sit in the office until they gave her a job. The plan worked. You can see Angelou telling the story to Oprah above.
6. CAGED BIRD CHANGED ASSUMPTIONS THAT BOOKS ABOUT BLACK WOMEN DIDN'T SELL.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a bestseller for two years. It challenged the publishing world’s stereotype that “black women’s lives were rarely worthy of autobiography,” according to The New York Times. The success of Caged Bird helped pave the way for other black writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange.
7. READING A POEM AT BILL CLINTON'S INAUGURATION INCREASED BOOK SALES 500 PERCENT.
In 1993, Angelou read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration. While Caged Bird had always sold well, after the inauguration, sales shot up 500 percent—landing the book back on the bestseller list 24 years after it was published.
8. ANGELOU CO-WROTE THE MOVIE VERSION OF CAGED BIRD.
Starring Diahann Carroll and Constance Good, the TV movie I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings aired on CBS in 1979. Angelou co-wrote the screenplay with Leonora Thuna. You can watch the movie here.
9. CAGED BIRD IS FREQUENTLY BANNED OR CENSORED ...
Despite being widely taught in schools, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is often removed from reading lists for sexual content, language, and drug use. The American Library Association (ALA) listed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as the third book on The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000. Angelou has been called the most banned author in the U.S.
10. ... AND WAS THE CATALYST FOR BANNED BOOKS WEEK.
According to a post on the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Blog, a display featuring Caged Bird in a "miniature prison cell at the American Booksellers Association 1982 annual convention catalyzed the advent of Banned Books Week." During Banned Books Week—which will be held this year from September 25 to October 1—a number of organizations, including ALA, American Booksellers for Free Expression, and the Association of American Publishers, celebrate the freedom to read.
In 2009, Angelou told The Press-Enterprise that "I'm always sorry that people ban my books ... [M]any times my books are banned by people who never read two sentences. I feel sorry for the young person who never gets to read. Open the library. Let him or her go in. And the adult, the teacher or the parent, should be strong enough to be asked, 'What does this mean?' And brave enough to say, 'Well, I don't know if you can get all of this right now, but I can tell you this. And then later on you'll come to me again, or when I think you are ready, I'll raise it myself.'"
11. ANGELOU'S LAST PROJECT WAS A HIP-HOP ALBUM CALLED CAGED BIRD SONGS.
Music producers Shawn Rivera and RoccStarr worked with Angelou on Caged Bird Songs, an album that blends her poetry and lyrics with hip-hop beats. The title was, of course, taken from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. It was one of the last projects Angelou worked on before her death in 2014.