When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969, Angelou was hailed as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African-American women who were able to publicly discuss their personal lives. According to scholar Hilton Als, up to that point, black female writers were marginalized to the point that they were unable to present themselves as central characters in the literature they wrote. Scholar John McWhorter agreed, seeing Angelou's works, which he called "tracts", as "apologetic writing". He placed Angelou in the tradition of African-American literature as a defense of black culture, which he called "a literary manifestation of the imperative that reigned in the black scholarship of the period". Writer Julian Mayfield, who called Caged Bird "a work of art that eludes description", argued that Angelou's autobiographies set a precedent for not only other black women writers, but also African-American autobiography as a whole. Als said that Caged Bird marked one of the first times that a black autobiographer could, as he put it, "write about blackness from the inside, without apology or defense". Through the writing of her autobiography, Angelou became recognized and highly respected as a spokesperson for blacks and women. It made her "without a doubt, ... America's most visible black woman autobiographer", and "a major autobiographical voice of the time". As writer Gary Younge said, "Probably more than almost any other writer alive, Angelou's life literally is her work."
Als said that Caged Bird helped increase black feminist writings in the 1970s, less through its originality than "its resonance in the prevailing Zeitgeist", or the time in which it was written, at the end of the American Civil Rights movement. Als also claimed that Angelou's writings, more interested in self-revelation than in politics or feminism, have freed other female writers to "open themselves up without shame to the eyes of the world". Angelou critic Joanne M. Braxton stated that Caged Bird was "perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing" autobiography written by an African-American woman in its era. Angelou's poetry has influenced the modern hip-hop music community, including artists such as Kanye West, Common, Tupac Shakur, and Nicki Minaj.
Reviewer Elsie B. Washington, most likely due to President Clinton's choice of Angelou to recite her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at his 1993 inauguration, called her "the black woman's poet laureate". Sales of the paperback version of her books and poetry rose by 300–600% the week after Angelou's recitation. Random House, which published the poem later that year, had to reprint 400,000 copies of all her books to keep up with the demand. They sold more of her books in January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, accounting for a 1200% increase. Angelou famously said, in response to criticism regarding using the details of her life in her work, "I agree with Balzac and 19th-century writers, black and white, who say, 'I write for money'". Younge, speaking after the publication of Angelou's third book of essays, Letter to My Daughter (2008), has said, "For the last couple of decades she has merged her various talents into a kind of performance art—issuing a message of personal and social uplift by blending poetry, song and conversation".
Angelou's books, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have been criticized by many parents, causing their removal from school curricula and library shelves. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, parents and schools have objected to Caged Bird's depictions of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography, and violence. Some have been critical of the book's sexually explicit scenes, use of language, and irreverent religious depictions. Caged Bird appeared third on the American Library Association (ALA) list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000 and sixth on the ALA's 2000–2009 list.
Awards and honors
Angelou was honored by universities, literary organizations, government agencies, and special interest groups. Her honors included a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie, a Tony Award nomination for her role in the 1973 play Look Away, and three Grammys for her spoken word albums. She served on two presidential committees, and was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1994, the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Angelou was awarded over fifty honorary degrees.
Uses in education
Angelou's autobiographies have been used in narrative and multicultural approaches in teacher education. Jocelyn A. Glazier, a professor at George Washington University, has trained teachers how to "talk about race" in their classrooms with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name. According to Glazier, Angelou's use of understatement, self-mockery, humor, and irony have left readers of Angelou's autobiographies unsure of what she left out and how they should respond to the events she described. Angelou's depictions of her experiences of racism have forced white readers to explore their feelings about race and their own "privileged status". Glazier found that critics have focused on where Angelou fits within the genre of African-American autobiography and on her literary techniques, but readers have tended to 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 argued that Angelou's book has provided a "useful framework" for exploring the obstacles many children like Maya have faced and how their communities have helped them succeed. Psychologist Chris Boyatzis has reported using 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 found Caged Bird a "highly effective" tool for providing real-life examples of these psychological concepts.