THE BLOG
29/05/2014 06:05 BST | Updated 28/07/2014 06:59 BST

Why Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Should Be Taught In British Classrooms Now

Michael Gove is set to replace Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird with books by English writers on the GCSE syllabus - a move that has resulted in widespread fury.

The backlash is understandable - after all the American classics by John Steinbeck and Harper Lee are incredible works, addressing morality, corruption, prejudice and isolation.

However, the book every young person should read ahead of these novels - and whatever the Education Secretary deems more important - is I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

maya angelou

The writer, lecturer and activist died this week, aged 86, at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. While losing someone who contributed so much to women's literature is devastating, her legacy is a body of work we must utilise and share with younger generations now.

If you haven't read this book in particular, allow me to explain why its genius and message are so important and relevant today.

Set in the 1930s, this - the first installment of Angelou's incendiary seven-part series of autobiographies - tells the story of her childhood in the racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas.

Here, racism is so accepted, her employer changes her name to Mary without consultation. When the Klu Klux Klan descends on her neighborhood intent on terrorizing its inhabitants, her uncle Willie must hide among vegetables and pray he is not discovered.

And prejudice is not the only injustice Angelou has to deal with.

When she is raped by her mother's boyfriend and he dies after she reveals the terrible truth, she enters into a period of self-imposed mutism, certain her voice must be dangerous and she is to blame.

But despite suffering, Angelou survives. Make no mistake, this is not a book that pivots on tragedy - it has everything and manages to be at once the story of an extraordinary life while truthfully covering the everyday.

From big issues such as prejudice to personal experiences like virginity loss (an "empty night") and teen motherhood ("he was beautiful and he was mine. Totally mine."), I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings deals with the right, the wrong and the minutiae of family life. It's a book about a young woman who will not be curbed and who learns a person needs strong character and determination - not perfect circumstances - to thrive.

In addition, it is a timely reminder of what living life in a society that tolerates discrimination truly means.

This is why Angelou's work must be taught, shared and made available to young people in the UK today.

Growing up, we're served these big dramatic characters at school. The Lady Macbeths and the Juliets - personas created to be mad, bad, sad and ultimately, destroyed. Fiction is wonderful entertainment but doesn't always encourage you to aspire towards greatness or truly believe it can be yours quite like the account of a real life, well lived.

Girls in particular can only benefit from reading Angelou's story as it genuinely does make you feel that with the right attitude and commitment to yourself, you can achieve your goals whatever they are.

It's not an easy time to be a woman and the next generation need all the strong, successful, honest influences they can get.

We live in a country where three million women experience rape and domestic violence every year. Where 30,000 are fired for simply being pregnant and where, when you do enter the job market, you stand to earn 10% less than the man sitting next to you.

Shakespeare is wonderful. Seamus Heaney, a revelation. But if we want to share and teach literature that will inspire progression and self-belief no matter what? I can think of no better work than I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.