The caged bird still sings Anne Arundel County: Is Maya Angelou too sophisticated for ninth graders?

January 13, 1998

DECIDING WHICH books are age-appropriate is never easy. Anne Arundel County Superintendent Carol S. Parham has decided that Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" should no longer be required reading of all ninth-graders in county schools. She was responding to parent complaints that the book contained references to rape and lesbianism.

Rather than let this issue fester into a horribly divisive issue, Dr. Parham asked the school system's curriculum materials committee to review the book again this summer. In the meantime, it will remain on the "optional reading list" for ninth graders and will be available for 11th-grade English classes.

Ms. Angelou's 1970 book, a National Book Award winner about a young woman growing up in the segregated South and overcoming obstacles, contains material that some 14-year-olds might not have encountered in a book in school but might regularly have seen on TV.

Most of the dozen or so complaints Dr. Parham received were from parents objecting to the sexual content of the book. Ms. Angelou describes her brutal rape as an eight-year old child and also frankly discusses her attraction toward other females. These are topics that can be discussed a classroom as long as the teachers are properly prepared. A number of parents complained that their children's teachers did not have classroom discussions that placed these topics in context.

Dr. Parham correctly decided that students would be ill-served if Ms. Angelou's book was completely removed from the curriculum.

The superintendent's measured response should not be equated with some actions seen in Maryland school systems in recent years, when books are yanked from school shelves to quell controversy. Several years ago, "Curious George" was among eight books that parents wanted banned from the schools' supplemental reading list in Carroll County, citing "sexism." In Baltimore County, a modern version of the poem "Froggy Went A-Courtin," in which Froggy appears as a gun-toting 1940s gangster, was removed from school libraries due to complaints. These controversies involved adults reading meaning into illustrations and stories that went over childrens' heads.

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" contains some provocative and disturbing passages, as do most intellectually challenging books. So do "Hamlet" and "Oedipus Rex." A school system has a duty to ensure that teachers are equipped to lead informed discussion on these books. Most 16-year olds and their teachers should be able to discuss sexual abuse and sexual identity in appropriate context. Better that young people discuss some of these issues in a schoolroom rather than a schoolyard.

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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