When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats the 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
Paul Dunbar Sympathy
I think that I may have related to you the astonishing experience of listening to one of America’s most famous woman speak last month (see the entry on 28th of March A Tender Heart ) – so it wasn’t an accident that I could not resist buying her first and probably most famous autobiographical book – despite my aspiration to travel lightly! It lived up to expectations – a disturbingly rich text. It recounts the authors childhood in all its deprivations and delights. There is power in the detail of how her days were spent with her brother, in the yard and at school. No black woman writing about life in America can do so without dealing with hangling the themes of racism and sexism. This was a world of segregation where the white man really did think (and still does?) that some people are better than others simply because of their colour.
The sheer force and beauty of her character enabled her to overcome the worst nightmares of a young girl and impart strength and wisdom. Some wisdom can only ever come from suffering that we can hardly bear to imagine. And some of that pain we inflict on others through our dehumanising attitudes.
Set in Stamps, Arkansas, Maya and her brother are sent to live with their grandparents who run a small shop. In this setting the child grows up amidst the horror if prejudice and hatred. The cage that others seek to imprison her and other black people in does not prevent the music and song from emerging that celebrate the wonder of life and love and family. Here is life amidst death – light shining through the darkness of human nature. After reading it I am not surprised to discover that the book (first published in 1969) has become a classic. There are many lesson to be learnt about how we live our lives and what we do with our children. For a man reading the story I am acutely aware of how differently woman experience life. I am also reminded of how precious children are and how they need our love and protection – our lives are so shaped by our childhood experiences.
An uncomfortable and illuminating book.