Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Poetry Corner

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By Norah Christianson

Caged Bird

 – 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.

Maya Angelou is writing here about freedom, about what the lack of it does to the spirit. The birds, of course, are metaphors. They are birds as we are humans, but one is a free spirit who can “dare” to claim the skies, to enjoy, to achieve. The caged spirit (caged by ignorance, prejudice and slavery) sees the world through “bars of rage.” He sings of things he doesn’t even know of, has not experienced, but senses that the “unknown” (freedom) that is missing from his life, is needed for his life.

Freedom is being able to live a life we’ve chosen, to be in control of our own development. Oh yes, there are laws now. Everyone in America is supposed to be “free.” But prejudice and racism exist and are also forms of slavery insofar as they, too, result in destruction of the spirit and give rise to inward and/or outward rage. That being so, “slavery” still exists.

We really don’t think about freedom. While walking to the Post Office, we do not exclaim, “How free I am!”  We do not think, while using the restroom in a restaurant, or talking politics with friends, “I am free!” It’s a given. But maybe, if we are Black or Jewish or Asian or Arab, or anything other than white-as-Wonder Bread and Christian-as-Oral Roberts, probably we do not feel so free. Many folks in America are still “enslaved” by ignorant stereotypes and old deep-seated, learned fears and hatred. Many people who are “other” are not free to be seen as who they are, or to live as they want. Maybe, if we are a variety of “other,” we’re in the habit of looking over our shoulder. Maybe we’re in the practice of careful listening for the subtle discriminatory meaning behind a remark.  Or in the habit of ignoring those little micro-aggressions we’re in receipt of so often. Maybe we know deep in our bones that we did not get the house we bid on, or the promotion we deserved, because of our race, religion, sex.

So many white Americans are oblivious to all this. Or choose to be oblivious, despite what the news tells us every day. Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a woman at the library concerning a book about black prejudice. She was white. I said I did not think we had come so very far with overcoming racism. She told me I was being negative. She told me, “Oh, we have come far!! Look at all the Blacks in the entertainment industry and in sports!”

Wonderful! She gets to be entertained, and she’s absolved from having to try to change anything with regard to racism. Because, she thinks, Black people have made it! They’re even famous! I’m sure it would surprise her to learn that, of the 4,200 professional athletes competing in the four major sports leagues in the United States, white people make up 72.8% of all professional athletes. Comparatively, 8.9% of professional athletes are Black and 7.5% are Latino. I guess it would surprise her to know that white people makes up 57.5% of all entertainers, 20.5% of entertainers are Latino, and 10.0% of entertainers are Black. Of the estimated 47.9 million Black folks in America, what tiny, tiny percentage get to be entertainers or athletes? I doubt the lady knows one black athlete. I doubt the lady knows one black entertainer. I doubt the lady knows one black person at all. So many people in America, if not racist, are simply—and maybe purposely—blind to the racism in America. And their willful ignorance of racism obstructs freedom as much as the practice of racism. 

So, back to slavery: There is evidence of slavery going back 11,000 years. Slavery occurs in many cultures and religions. According to the Global Slavery Index, “…slavery continues into the 21st century. …As of 2018, the countries with the most slaves were: India (8 million), China (3.86 million), Pakistan (3.19 million) and North Korea (2.64 million).”

Back to freedom: When we take freedom for granted, it is very easy to lose it. Three different sources tell me that from 33 to 52 countries in the world are ruled by a dictator or an authoritarian regime. Nine countries have become pure dictatorships in the last two years. We must be careful not to join them. 

Back to Maya Angelou:

a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   

Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928. At the age of eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was then murdered—presumably by Angelou’s uncles. For five years after, Maya did not speak, thinking that in the telling of the rape, her voice killed her rapist. During these years of silence, she began to read and write. She loved poetry. It wasn’t until her teacher told her, “You do not love poetry, not until you speak it,” that she began to speak again.

At 14, she moved to California with her mother, where she attended the California Labor School. At 16 she became the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. At 17, a son was born to her. 

Before becoming a writer, she held many jobs—sex worker, fry cook, night club performer. She lived such an amazing life, it’s hard to even begin to tell of it. For instance, she met Alvin Ailey and formed a (unsuccessful) modern dance team with him.  After that, she sang and danced in clubs, toured Europe with “Porgy and Bess,” and then began writing. After having met Martin Luther King in 1960, she became a civil rights fundraiser as well as an anti-apartheid activist. In 1961 she moved to Cairo with her lover, South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make. In Cairo, Angelou became an associate editor of “The Arab Observer.” In 1962, she moved to Ghana, where she became an administrator at the University of Ghana. Earlier, Angelou had become close friends with Malcolm X and in1965 she returned to the U.S. to help him build the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Devastated by the murders of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, she began to write and produce documentaries about Black heritage. In 1968, she wrote her first autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which brought her great acclaim. From then, she went on to become one of America’s best-known writers and poets. 

In 1993, Maya Angelou read her poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. In 2000, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., by President Barack Obama. Angelou died in North Carolina in 2014.

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