Caged Bird (Maya Angelou)

caged bird

Caged Bird

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, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?
Illustration by Corrie Haffly

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David Whyte describes poetry as ‘language against which we have no defenses.’

So much has been written on race and privilege, and so much anger and defensiveness has been lobbed in opposition, and so the power of this poem hits me afresh, and makes me wonder:

Free birds, are you listening to the singing?

Coming to terms with my racial privilege

Please welcome Jody to the Words That Changed My World Series! I have loved reading Jody’s thoughts over the past months – she’s a deep thinker and winsome writer on some tricky issues relating to race and culture, so I am more than thrilled to have her as a guest today. And, by the way, you should stop over at her blog to read some more of her stuff when you’re done!

Photo credit:  TheRealRanjitMakkuni

Photo credit: TheRealRanjitMakkuni

I sat in her office, desperate to convince her that I cared, that these issues of race were just as important to me as they were to her, one of the few African-American woman working in a predominately white institution.

“You don’t have to think about the issue of race,” she said to me point-blank.

I was taken aback, “Yes, I do. It’s really important to me to understand,” I tried to half-convince, half-explain.

“But you don’t have to,” she persisted. “I can’t ever take my skin off. It comes with me everywhere I go. You don’t have to think about yours if you don’t want to. I don’t have a choice.”

I paused, having never before considered that the privilege of my white skin was that it allowed me simple freedoms like walking into a rural gas station without getting suspicious looks, or keeping people from placing me under media-driven stereotypes. It was a moment in time when I realized that everything I’d ever understood about ‘normal’ was far from that very notion, and that no matter how much I did actually care, I would never fully understand the experience of people of color living in a broken and racialized society like the US.

At the time, I had no idea how formative her words would be as my life-steps eventually led me to marry across racial lines, teach in a wide variety of diverse contexts, move several times among the immensely diverse cultures of the US, travel around the world and raise biracial children. In order for me to fully step into the world of understanding another’s reality, I needed to first accept that I would need to accept their worldview without a complete ability to understand it.

Come to find out, this lesson had a much broader application than I originally realized. As I walk through life, there are a whole host of people I don’t understand, and walking alongside them with an attitude that reminds me that I don’t have a clue about their story allows me to listen more gently, walk more humbly, and love more mercifully.

It’s a bit paradoxical, I admit. However, the more I matured in my understanding of all things, the more I understood both the reality and beauty of paradox. To save your life, you must lose it. The first will be last and the last will be first. Blessed are the meek. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

Admitting my own limitations in my ability to walk alongside others has given me a freedom that I never knew in the days when I thought I had all the answers. It allows me to listen without judgment, to love without critique or skepticism, to speak and anger slowly. For those of us who have only ever known the experience of being the-ones-with-the-power, these skills must be actively developed and practiced when in order to truly hear those coming from a different place. Like a diamond, they form as a result of some intense and heated pressure within, creating something beautiful only after the conflict resolves.

My journey toward a deeper racial understanding has mirrored this very process. I am forever grateful both for the discomfort my African-American friend’s words created in my life as well as for her honesty that set me on a brutal and beautiful journey toward the reconciling of broken things – myself being first on the list.

DSC_0668Jody Fernando (@Jodylouise) does a lot of living between worlds. A midwestern girl from the cornfields, she is married to a man from the Indian Ocean. Together, they raise their bicultural and biracial children, and have family on four continents. She explores the ins and outs of intercultural living on her blog Between Worlds, helps amazingly resilient immigrants learn to speak English, teaches a few university courses, and makes a mean curry. Read more about her journey toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race and faith in her book Pondering Privilege.