Cumberland Falls, Cumberland Falls State Park, Honeybee/Corbin, Kentucky

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Thursday, April 30, 2020

The History and Lessons from "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" ...

Anyone who knows me knows that Maya Angelou is one of my favorite American poets, and that "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is one of my favorite books. 

But what many people don't know is that the title of the book is based on the poem "Sympathy" by Paul Lawrence Dunbar 

Just an FYI, we have a high school here in Lexington named after Paul Laurence Dunbar  - because his family was enslaved here in Kentucky before the Civil War, moving to Dayton, OH, after emancipation.  

Ironically, the newer, suburban Lexington high school that bears his name is actually filled with wealthy, suburban white kids - whom I bet you a dollar don't even know who Paul Laurence Dunbar was :/

I hope they do know who he was, someday, and that they read this poem ....

"Sympathy" - Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he 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!

The poem is called "Sympathy," because he's expressing sympathy for both for the bird in the cage, as well as for his parents who were slaves - and he realizes as a adult that he's still in a cage, like his parents, just a new cage - still struggling with racism and segregation - he is now understanding himself as an adult what life is like in a cage.

It's about not truly understanding how it feels to live the life of others until we actually live it ourselves, to some degree. 

In Maya's book, however, the cage represents many types of cages - some imposed on her by others like racism, sexual assault/threats - other cages are self-imposed, from our own fears, pain, grief, or even buried, righteous anger.

You see, after Maya experiences a violent sexual assault as a child and is hospitalized, she fears telling who the assailant was -  at first for her own safety, because she had been threatened with her life if she told anyone.  

In the courtroom, when put on the stand, she is asked whether this was only the first and only assault. Her mother, fearing that if she told the truth, that it happened more than once, it would be used against her even at 9 years old - her mother shakes her head "yes" sternly - so Maya answers yes, though it was many times, and she was just afraid to tell anyone until she was hospitalized and it became obvious.  

The man is found guilty, but before he is taken to prison, he is beaten and killed by men in the community. 

Afterwards, Maya begins to fear the powerful consequences of words, truth or lie, that they sometimes can mean the difference between guilty and innocent, life and death, so she decides not to speak at all - she becomes a selective mute for 5 years.  

It is not until a teacher notices her gift for writing and encourages her to speak again, reading her own writing, because she says it takes the human voice to infuse words with life - and free herself from the cage she's imprisoned herself in :)

The cage has several meanings in Maya's books - external structures imposed upon her like racism, sexual assault - but also self-imposed ones like being selectively mute due to trauma or anger or not reaching her full potential because she's limited herself based on erroneous self-belief that was originally "predicted" upon her. 

Regardless of the cage, the point, however, is that the reason that the caged bird still sings though caged is because longs for freedom, the hope for freedom, whatever the cage may be - and if it's a self-imposed cage, let yourself out :)

If it's a cage that has been imposed upon you rather than self imposed - i.e., COVID-19 - keep singing for freedom that will soon be here :)

And if/when you are freed, never forget your sympathy for the caged bird - what it felt like to caged - sympathy for others who must continue to live this way, and worse, due to poverty, racism, etc. 

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