A Strong Built Bird Cage (#2)

Caged Bird, By Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind   

   and floats downstream   

   till the current ends

   and dips his wing

   in the orange sun rays

   and dares to claim the sky.

 

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

   his wings are clipped and   

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom.

 

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own

 

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom.

I was 17 the first time I heard one of Maya Angelou’s works. I had read the name here and there and vaguely knew of her importance but I never actually sat down to read one of her pieces until I went to the 2014 Miss Washington pageant. One of the opening acts was a woman reciting the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou. It floored me. At first I thought it was just the performance because of how powerful and animated the reciter was, then I went home and actually read some of Maya Angelou’s other works. What I read still had the magic that the poem I had heard had. They were simple but contained so much condensed meaning. She soon became one of my favorite black authors. The poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou has the same simplicity and beauty as most of her works and provides an impressive look into the lives of blacks post-slavery from the early 1900s to today.

When slavery ended black people were not freed from their past status. Individual and institutional racism still ran rampant. In 1900, approximately, 90% of blacks still lived in former slave-holding states (Pittman). These states had Jim-Crow laws, laws that were based in race. They usually required separate facilities for blacks and whites including, but not limited to bathrooms, waiting rooms, drinking fountains, and schools (Pittman). Busses were also segregated in sections and sometimes different busses were provided for different races (Pittman). Blacks could even be in danger for not following superficial social rules. In the   words of Isabel Wilkerson: “In everyday interactions, a black person could not contradict a white person or speak unless spoken to first. A black person could not be the first to offer to shake a white person’s hand… The consequences for the slightest misstep were swift and brutal. Two whites beat a black tenant farmer in Louise, Mississippi in 1948, because the man “asked for a receipt after paying his water bill.”” Segregation in public spaces, violence and social hierarchies were not the only problem that blacks faced. Black men and women were still forced into primarily agricultural job roles and black women were usually forced into domestic positions (Pittman). Without access to higher education or even good public schools how could people get past these limitations? Even with acsess the fight against individual racism must have been staggering. Even when blacks tried to use the rights they were legally entitled to they were stopped. A prime example being Fannie Lou Hamer a woman who tried to register to vote in 1962 (Hamer). During her journey to become a registered voter in Mississippi she was evicted from her home, held under arrest for standing near colleagues that were being put under arrest for entering a restaurant, and beaten by prisoners under police officers orders while being sexually humiliated (Hamer).  How could one feel free in this environment? Especially when comparing themselves to a race that didn’t have these strict rules and regulations. This struggle relates to Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird” where the whites represent the free bird and the blacks represent the caged bird.

 

A free bird leaps

   on the back of the wind   

   and floats downstream   

   till the current ends

   and dips his wing

   in the orange sun rays

   and dares to claim the sky.

 

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

   his wings are clipped and   

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

What did people do to deal with this environment? Many developed strong community and family bonds allowing strong connections and support from those outside of their immediate family (Pittman). People also relied heavily on religion to lift them from the throes of despair along with folk tales and celebrations rooted in past slavery agricultural cycles (Pittman). Others used this method along with another, which was leaving the South for the North. This was known as the Great Migration (Pittman).

People were pulled to the North for better education opportunities, better employment opportunities, and voting opportunities (Pittman). The process for voting in the North was less hazardous than that of the south, which is evident with the Fannie Lou Hamer account.  However people were not completely freed from the inequality that they experienced in the South. Although de jure segregation was less of a problem de facto segregation was alive and well especially regarding housing and schools. Banks usually only gave blacks subprime loans , loans meant for people with blemished credit, for buying homes (Pittman). If blacks weren’t even given subprime loans, becoming homeowners became impossible and many were limited to renters status (Pittman). Segregation Ordinances, city laws that were aimed at keeping black/POC people and families out of houses on blocks that were primarily white, also kept blacks who had access to housing loans from living in the best neighborhoods (Pittman). Urbanization also affected the black family dynamic. Both parents would have to work to have the resources to run a household causing less time spent on child-rearing and solidifying romantic relationships in marriages, leading to higher student truancy rates in blacks and tense family relations (Pittman). The freedom people were looking for in the North wasn’t as clear cut and simple as expected. The caged bird still remained chained, while its counterpart flew in front of their faces. However, even with these hardships blacks fought for equality through Civil Rights movement.

During Civil Rights era blacks, along with their white/POC allies, fought for change in both the North and the South. Strong activists like Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jo Ann Robinson, and Rosa Parks stood as pillars for the movement. They headed organizations, boycotts, and educated people on what needed to be done to stop racial inequality. Rosa Parks and Jo Ann Robinson were the pioneers of the Montgomery bus boycotts. Rosa Parks sparked the fire by refusing to give up her seat for a white man on a public bus causing her to be arrested and her allies to be enraged (Marable). Then Jo Ann Robinson, a college professor at Alabama State College, along with her college colleagues distributed tens of thousands of informational leaflets to the black community to start the boycott (Marable). Malcolm X, a muslim black activist, delivered numerous speeches in his lifetime, was an active participant in protests, and pushed the envelope of radical change. One of his speeches, “The Ballot or the Bullet” has the central theme of racial inequality changing immediately (Marable). He criticizes those who stay idle and politicians that refuse to act for change and emphasizes the need for the black community to unite no matter what religion or political affiliation (Marable).

To quote: “…If you never see me another time in your life, if I die in the morning, I’ll die saying one thing: the ballot or the bullet, the ballot or the bullet.”

Last, but not least  Dr. Martin Luther King, arguably the face of the Civil Rights movement he was an awe-inspiring leader most famous for his “I Have a Dream” speech. Another very important piece of his work is his letter from Birmingham Jail responding to criticisms from eight southern religious leaders for his arrest during a peaceful protest in the South (King). In it he describes his distaste for those who stand idle in the face of inequality,not wanting to go either way or face the root of the problems (King). He also uses his religious faith as a pillar of strength for himself and his cause, an example being the passage:

“… I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid (King).”

Both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King were assassinated before they were 40.

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own

 

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

The black community has made leaps and bounds to improve the quality of life in both the North and the South thanks to the amazing work that the activists above and those not mentioned have put in throughout the years. However, discrepancies still exist between the white and black qualities of life. One being the rate of black incarceration. Since the beginning of the war on drugs in the 1990s, along with historical during slavery, 225,200 people were in state prisons for drug offenses in 2011 compared to 19,000 in 1980 (Pittman). A large portion of these prisoners were black. Black men have a 29% chance of serving prison time during some point in their lives in comparison to whites with a 4% rate and latinos with a 16% rate (Pittman). Even though the majority of the U.S. population is white, and whites do commit the same crimes as blacks they are underrepresented in the prison system. This prison culture translates into the black culture causing rises in misogynistic attitudes toward women, rates of young adult incarceration, and a disparity in jobs for ex-offenders (Pittman). It’s a vicious cycle affecting thousands and thousands of people a year and generations of blacks to come. Even today, Maya Angelou’s work still carries weight for this situation.

The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom.

 

Bibliography

 

Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House,  1994 Print. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178948

Marable, Manning, and Leith Mullings. Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African American Anthology. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. Print.

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York, NY: Random House, 2010. Print.

Pittman, Lashawnda. “New Jim Crow Lecture.” “The Great Migration” “The Great Migration Part 2” “Lipsitz- Housing & Education” “The Second Reconstruction Part 2” How They got Over” University of Washington, Seattle. 08 Dec. 2015. Lectures.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Letter from a Birmingham Jail  Aug. Web. 06 Dec. 2015.

Hamer, Fannie Lou. “Fannie Lou Hamer’s Testimony.” YouTube. Ed. Pamela Cooke. YouTube, 10 June 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ML3WaEsCB98&gt;.

Image:

http://www.politicususa.com/2014/05/28/editorial-cartoon-caged-bird-sings.html

 

Blog By Jacquelyn Mixon

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