The title of the poem, I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou, is a curious one. It pre-supposes a question and the title of the poem suggests an answer. This is a different approach since most poems are more of an offering of a thought, experience, feeling or observation. Since Maya Angelou is an activist within the black women’s movement in the United States, it is anticipated that this poem will deal with issues relating to the black American woman or emancipation.
In this poem, the bird is a metaphor for human beings. The free bird is a free human being and the caged bird is one who is captured, restricted in mind or physicality from going where s/he wishes. In this reflection of the poem, I will compare and contrast the free and caged bird. I will offer thoughts on a parallel scenario with human beings.
This poem consists of six stanzas and are written in the following pattern.
The first stanza is about the free bird, the next two are of the caged bird, then one on the free bird and two on the caged bird again. In the first stanza, the bird has the freedom to catch any wind in whichever direction it is flowing. It is free to follow this breeze for as long as the river winds through the country side. It is free to fly into the setting sun and climb up to the unending sky again.
The next two stanzas discuss the caged bird and open with the word ‘bird’ written in upper case letters (BIRD) as if to draw conscious reading to the fact that there is a switch in circumstance for a similar bird.
This bird is in a mental cage as much as a physical cage. It seems unable to see past its anger at being prevented from flying because its wings have been clipped and its feet have been tethered.
The caged bird finds a type of freedom by using his voice and initially it is a sound of trepidation. His song conveys a longing for unknown freedom that he knows exists even though he has not yet experienced it. He has to use creative imagining to claim something that is innate to all living creatures; the longing to be free. This caged bird lives in a graveyard of unfulfilled dreams. If the painful protest that he ‘sings’ is not enough, his own shadow cries out as well.
Its vocal expression is not one of song but shriek, of torture and anguish and even the shadow’s wings and feet are not free. This song of freedom is so powerful that the sighing, whispering and pining of the caged bird is carried on the wind to far off hills and places that the caged bird has not travelled. The free bird needs think only of new undiscovered winds to ride, of gentle breezes through trees and readily available food whenever he wishes.
This song of freedom longed for cannot be muted or diminished. It will and does travel to far off places as if to call those who hear the whisperings of this song to come and rescue the caged. I wonder if it is this same song that gives life to the breeze of the free birds and buoys them on their journeys but they do not know it. In translating this poem from birds to people, the story is the same. We do not know what a luxury freedom is until we loose it. This loss can come about in so many ways but the result of being caged is the same. In our first world society, the bars of being caged are invisible but as strong as reinforced steel.
These invisible cages can range from not being able to afford or drive the right car, to not having the right title related to a job, not having the right or enough letters after your name in education and not living in the right neighborhood. Invisible cages can include having to buy brand less types of food vs. brand name foods, buying Tim Hortons vs. Bridgehead coffee. This invisible divisible is acutely felt within religious frameworks. One has only to survey the experiences of married vs. unmarried and divorced women to find the undercurrent of the divide of haves and have nots of a ‘man’ by your side. Our myriad of invisible cages knows no bounds in this current culture. It is invisible but yet divides those who have and those who have not like a knife ‘between the bone and marrow’.
In all these areas, our spirit and souls knows when we have been enslaved, captured or caught. It is innate to us and we feel it whether we recognize it or not. Our very being and the ‘very rocks cry out’ for this mis representation of truth to be corrected. Maya Angelou speaks from the perspective of a black woman who has seen and lived oppression.
Her poems speak of freedom for the black woman to rise and soar to unseen places. She calls all to follow the hints of the breeze that call all of us to freedom where ever we are and in whatever circumstances we are in. It is our own responsibility and duty to continue to sing for this freedom, to keep calling it towards ourselves, whether we see it immediately or not. She beckons us to believe in the unseen, to believe that there is a greater good that will respond and that somewhere out there there are like minded who are not bound like we are who do have the ethic to respond and follow the song back towards its source to release the caged into a previously unknown yet incredible freedom.