Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and 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.”
He talks about a bruised and caged bird longing to be free. This is where Maya Angelou got the name of her first book ”I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.
I know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography of Maya Angelou’s life up to the age of 17. She brings us back to her childhood years of being black in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1930-1950’s and her experiences of racism, segregation, sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 7 which affects her so deeply that she pours herself into reading and does not speak for 5 years and for me, the most important & intriguing part, finding her voice.
Halfway through the book, I wasn’t as impressed or deeply pulled in as the many before I seemed to have been. I guess I expected more especially after having read Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. Maybe it was the way it was written or the POV it came from. We have Maya telling her story of childhood through adult lenses.
What I do credit for in helping me appreciate the book more is reading about how it affected or resonated with other people, what it meant to them and the themes explored. It was at this point that I felt closer to the book because it wasn’t just myself reading and discovering it, there was a community and different POVs and that’s what makes reading an eye-opener for me. I appreciated:
- Gave a different and hardcore perspective of growing up black in America
- Her determination to not allow certain obstacles and people stand in her way despite the blockades. Maya became the first black female cable car conductor.
- That no matter our color, ethnicity, gender, background or culture, we all face some sort of discrimination or hardship-racism, poverty, segregation, sexual discovery, class, teenage pregnancy, family disruption, racism, lesbianism, adolescence, religion/faith, questions of identity.
“Of course, I knew God was white too, but no one could have made me believe that he was prejudiced.”
“Well, that may be, but the name’s too long. I’d never bother myself. I’d call her Mary if I was you.”
I thought what papishow (nonsense) is this? It highlighted the little to no level of respect that the whites had towards blacks.
“I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson….All I cared about was that she had made me tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me.”
This maybe is my favorite line. I felt her joy of being accepted for what she had to offer and that she wasn’t labeled. Also, the innocence of childhood-a simplicity we seem to forget and a reminder of how we go searching for “big” things to make us happy.
- Another perspective in America besides the negro. We are given insights into Japanese citizens living in America and then being forced into camps.
- Living during World War II
- Reminds me that it was only 87 years ago that having my skin color be dark was seen as a horrid thing
- That our society has come far and still has a long way to go. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither will tolerance and acceptance.
- And of course, you find funny moments & words of wisdom
“…Miss Glory told me that Mrs Cullinan couldn’t have children. She said that she was too delicate-boned. It was hard to imagine bones at all under those layers of fat.”
I literally laughed out loud. Maya could have been a comedian too.
“That evening I decided to write a poem on being white, fat, old and without children. It was going to be a tragic ballad. I would have to watch her carefully to capture the essence of her loneliness and pain.” BOSS!
“Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”
“She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely saying was couched the collective wisdom of generations.”
“The idea came to me that my people may be a race of masochists and that not only was it our fate to live the poorest, roughest life but that we liked it like that.”
“In this world you have to have a policy” now, my policy is that I don’t treat coloured people.”
Have you read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou? What are your thoughts? What does it mean to you?
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