Critical reception and sales
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the most highly acclaimed of Angelou's autobiographies. The other volumes in her series of seven autobiographies are judged and compared to Caged Bird. It became a bestseller immediately after it was published, and Angelou became known, according to the New York Times Book Review, as an author who "writes like a song, and like the truth. The wisdom, rue and humor of her storytelling are borne on a lilting rhythm completely her own." Angelou's friend and mentor, James Baldwin, maintained that her book "liberates the reader into life" and called it "a Biblical study of life in the midst of death". According to Angelou's biographers, "Readers, especially women, and in particular Black women, took the book to heart".
By the end of 1969, critics had placed Angelou in the tradition of other Black autobiographers. Poet James Bertolino asserts that Caged Bird "is one of the essential books produced by our culture". He insists that "[w]e should all read it, especially our children". It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970. The book has never been out of print and has been published in many languages. In 1995, Angelou's publishing company, Bantam Books, recognized her for having the longest-running record (two years) on The New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list. In addition, Caged Bird has been a Book of the Month Club and an Ebony Book Club selection. In 2011, Time Magazine placed the book in its list of 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.
Critic Robert A. Gross called Caged Bird "a tour de force of language". Edmund Fuller insisted that Angelou's intellectual range and artistry were apparent in how she told her story. Caged Bird catapulted Angelou to international fame and critical acclaim, and "heralded the success of other now prominent [black women] writers". Other reviewers have praised Angelou's use of language in the book, including critic E. M. Guiney, who reported that Caged Bird was "one of the best autobiographies of its kind that I have read". Critic R. A. Gross praised Angelou for her use of rich and dazzling images.
By the mid-1980s, Caged Bird had gone through 20 hardback printings and 32 paperback printings. Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration; in the following week, sales of the paperback version of Caged Bird and her other works rose by 300–600 percent. The 16-page publication of "On the Pulse of Morning" became a best-seller, and the recording of the poem was awarded a Grammy Award. Bantam Books reprinted 400,000 copies of her books to meet demand. Random House, which published Angelou's hardcover books and the poem later that year, reported that they sold more of her books in January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, marking a 1,200 percent increase.
In one of the few negative reviews of Caged Bird, author Francine Prose considers its inclusion in the high school curriculum as partly responsible for the "dumbing down" of American society. Prose calls the book "manipulative melodrama", and considers Angelou's writing style an inferior example of poetic prose in memoir. She accuses Angelou of combining a dozen metaphors in one paragraph and for "obscuring ideas that could be expressed so much more simply and felicitously".
When Caged Bird was published in 1969, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African-American women who was able to publicly discuss her personal life. Up to that point, Black women writers were marginalized to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters. Writer Julian Mayfield, who called Caged Bird "a work of art that eludes description", has insisted that Angelou's autobiographies set a precedent not only for other Black women writers, but for African American autobiography as a whole. Als insisted that Caged Bird marked one of the first times that a Black autobiographer could, as Als put it, "write about blackness from the inside, without apology or defense". Through the writing of her autobiography, Angelou became recognized as a respected spokesperson for blacks and women. Caged Bird made her "without a doubt, ... America's most visible black woman autobiographer". Although Als considers Caged Bird an important contribution to the increase of Black feminist writings in the 1970s, he attributes its success less to its originality than to "its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist", of its time, at the end of the American Civil Rights movement. Angelou's writings, more interested in self-revelation than in politics or feminism, freed many other women writers to "open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world".
Angelou's autobiographies, especially the first volume, have been used in narrative and multicultural approaches to teacher education. Dr. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington University, has used Caged Bird and Gather Together in My Name to train teachers how to "talk about racism" in their classrooms. Due to Angelou's use of understatement, self-mockery, humor, and irony, readers of Angelou's autobiographies wonder what she "left out" and are unsure about how to respond to the events Angelou describes. These techniques force white readers to explore their feelings about race and their privileged status in society. Glazier found that although critics have focused on where Angelou fits within the genre of African American autobiography and her literary techniques, readers react to her storytelling with "surprise, particularly when [they] enter the text with certain expectations about the genre of autobiography".
Educator Daniel Challener, in his 1997 book, Stories of Resilience in Childhood, analyzed the events in Caged Bird to illustrate resiliency in children. Challener states that Angelou's book provides a useful framework for exploring the obstacles many children like Maya face and how a community helps these children succeed as Angelou did. Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has used Caged Bird to supplement scientific theory and research in the instruction of child development topics such as the development of self-concept and self-esteem, ego resilience, industry versus inferiority, effects of abuse, parenting styles, sibling and friendship relations, gender issues, cognitive development, puberty, and identity formation in adolescence. He has called the book a highly effective tool for providing real-life examples of these psychological concepts.
Caged Bird elicits criticism for its honest depiction of rape, its exploration of the ugly specter of racism in America, its recounting of the circumstances of Angelou's own out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy, and its humorous poking at the foibles of the institutional church.–Opal Moore
Caged Bird has been criticized by many parents, causing it to be removed from school curricula and library shelves. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, parents and schools have objected to the book's depictions of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography, and violence. Some have been critical of its sexually explicit scenes, use of language, and irreverent religious depictions. The book is challenging for young readers and some adults, so educators have stressed the importance of preparing teachers to introduce the book effectively. Caged Bird appeared third on the American Library Association (ALA) list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, sixth on the ALA's 2000–2009 list, and one of the ten books most frequently banned from high school and junior high school libraries and classrooms.
A made-for-TV movie version of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was filmed in Vicksburg, Mississippi and aired on April 28, 1979 on CBS. Angelou and Leonora Thuna wrote the screenplay; the movie was directed by Fielder Cook. Constance Good played young Maya. Also appearing were actors Esther Rolle, Roger E. Mosley, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, and Madge Sinclair. Two scenes in the movie differed from events described in the book. Angelou added a scene between Maya and Uncle Willie after the Joe Louis fight; in it, he expresses his feelings of redemption after Louis defeats a white opponent. Angelou also presents her eighth grade graduation differently in the film. In the book, Henry Reed delivers the valedictory speech and leads the Black audience in the Negro national anthem. In the movie, Maya conducts these activities.