Maya Angelou has written a novel called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but she doesn’t explain the title.  It actually originates from a Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem titled “Sympathy.”  He lived from 1872 until 1906, and lived in a period where Blacks couldn’t expect to be treated equally or fairly.  Their best possible option was to be ignored, yet their poets cried out, singing songs of hope and lament.

Dunbar intones, “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 deepest core/But a plea, that upward to Heaven flings/I know why the caged bird sings.”

Not so very long ago, slaves sang spirituals to a God above, a God who would make everything right in heaven.  In the Color Purple, Celie claims, “This life soon be over.  Heaven lasts all ways.”  Indeed, all ways, not always.

Maya Angelou takes these sentiments, and turns them on their head, saying that even in sadness there is freedom, even in loss and inequity there is beauty to be found in a life well-lived.  At the very beginning of chapter fourteen, she talks about the residents of a small, rural town in Alabama called Stamps:  “They showed me a contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due.  Their decision to be satisfied with life’s inequities was a lesson for me.”

She wrote her own poem of hope:  I Rise.

“Out of the huts of history’s shame/I Rise/Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/I Rise…/I am the dream and the hope of the slave/I Rise/I Rise/I Rise.”

Despite the limitations of the time period where open prejudice, hostility, and mistrust flourished, Blacks have found a way to make their life on earth matter, a great difference from their past where hope was an afterthought.

No matter how big or small our life is, there must still be gratitude that we are afforded a life at all.  That seems to be Maya Angelou’s belief.  She names and renames Black people as Negroes, Coloreds, Blacks, and the slur word White people use.  I asked a friend Rosie what term she prefers, and she said that Black seems perfectly acceptable to her, although other Black men and women use the term African-American.  The difficulty, she claims, is that most names assigned to Blacks are terms Whites have created to differentiate themselves from a sense of “otherness.”  Blacks therefore have to find a way to reclaim their heritage through whatever appellation they use.

What do you call me? I have already used all those words and they are useless to me now, Maya Angelous seems to challenge.  She insists on being accorded a life of dignity, a sense of a life well-lived.

Many Black people that I have run into answer the question, How are you, by saying simply, “I’m Blessed.”  White people that I encounter very rarely respond that way, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe Whites are afraid of seeming too overtly spiritual, almost as if religion and religious sentiments are something to be embarrassed about. I personally think we should learn better what makes us alike rather than what makes us different.  I think it’s perfectly alright to be blessed.  As children of God we do not need to grovel.

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