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!
From “Lyrics of the Hearthside, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1899.
Jewish slaves may or may not have built the pyramids in Egypt , but Michelle Obama recently awakened America’s historical consciousness with the remark: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves” – meaning of course, the White House in Washington, D.C., which was indeed built in part by black slaves.
Now, dear readers, a personal confession in light of the recent flap over formative national texts, with particular reference to a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. In the 1960s, attending recently desegregated secondary schools in Washington, I learned black spirituals in compulsory music class and could easily connect them to what I learned about slavery and freedom in Hebrew school. But I didn’t learn anything by or about Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) in compulsory English class.
The son of freed black slaves whose father fought in the Union army and whose mother raised him on her own in his birthplace Dayton, Ohio, Dunbar metaphorically locates the condition of slavery in a birdcage.
First, the narrator sympathizes as the bird longs to range freely in the beautiful world seen outside the cage, particularly in springtime.
In the second stanza, looking inside the cage, he feels the bird’s pain that results not only from the lack of freedom but also from desperate efforts to gain it and in the third, looking into the bird’s soul, he examines the puzzling question of why, nevertheless, a caged, bloodied and struggling bird sings: His song becomes prayer. Instead of the bird himself soaring, his plea does. As Gospel singers in black churches belt out: Hallelujah anyway.
Dunbar, a prolific writer of prose as well as poetry in both black dialect and standard English (something like Haim Nachman Bialik, who wrote both mother-tongue Yiddish and Hebrew), was the first black American to achieve literary recognition. North of the Mason-Dixon line, apparently, this is considered a formative text, though it wasn’t in whiter parts of mid-century Washington D.C., which straddled the imaginary North-South divide, and where Dunbar lived for a few years, working at the Library of Congress. Now I recognize the cultural references in the title of the 1969 autobiography of the late black writer Maya Angelou, in the final line of this poem.
*Musing: The title word, “Sympathy,” comes from the Greek words for “together” and “feeling.” Does sympathy necessarily require imagining yourself as the other?
Bonus: Candi Staton sings Hallelujah Anyway.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now