I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his 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 Laurence Dunbar, “Sympathy”

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’s poem “Caged Bird”

This morning in my prison writing workshop, a young woman awaiting sentencing broke down in tears as she shared that she had recently been falsely accused of assault. There is no doubt in my mind that she was telling the truth. The circumstances were more guilt by association and she had the strong feeling that she was judged solely on the color of her skin.

“I’ve never laid my hands on ANYBODY,” she said emphatically and convinced me more than anything I have ever been convinced of in my life.

Usually, when a woman in the class ends up in tears, and it has happened in every class I’ve led, the other women keep quiet for a moment, let her cry and then comfort her. Today was a very different scenario, the women dishing out more tough love than compassion. Even her cellmate, who had grown very fond of her, described it as a “lesson,” one that should remind her to start hanging out with a different crowd. Another said to make sure that in any car she’s in the head and brake lights work, that there are no “works” in the car, and other necessary precautions to keep her from being an obvious target. She continued to cry and said “All I want is to be home with my babies for Christmas, and instead I’m here.” It was devastating and I PRAY that the judge believes her and that all she gets is a slap on the wrist and gets to go home to her “babies.”

After the class there was an “inspirational concert” performed by 9 inmates led by one of the incredible social workers who work in the program. The concert was combined with a “graduation” from the 2-week orientation program and a celebration of a few women who had completed their GED. It took one woman 6 years, but she did it, and when she stood up to accept her certificate, the pride on her face was immeasurable.

Before the concert I wondered what could possibly inspire these women to move them to sing. They were in prison, many withdrawing from drugs, most having had their children taken away, but they still wanted to sing. The first of three spirituals that they sang is called “Precious Lamb of God,” and the message couldn’t be more clear:

When I always didn’t do right
I went left, He told me to go right
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears, Lord
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

Even when I broke Your heart
my sins tore us apart
But I’m standing right here
in the midst of my tears
I claim You to be the Lamb of God

New life can begin
for You washed away, washed away every one of my sins
Whom the Son sets free, is truly free indeed
claim You to be the Lamb of God.

One of the women from my morning class had previously said people always assumed she was mean because she never smiled. She sang a magnificent solo and a smile never left her face. The women giggled when they messed up a lyric or when their little dance moves got of sync, but, they were up there, having fun, lifting their voices up to the prison ceiling, the officers in uniform on the stairs above, and I guess, to God.

At the end of the ceremony, an administrator gently acknowledged that yes, the holidays were coming, and yes, they were not in an ideal setting. I had asked one of the staff earlier what happens on Christmas day and she said, “It’s just like any other day.” When the woman said to the crowd, “It’s GOOD you’re here, it could be worse,” and the women nodded their heads and said “You’re right,” I understood what she was saying. They could be dead, they could be stumbling through traffic high on meth, they could be jerking off some stranger for $5.00 so they could buy a pack of cigarettes.

We all have our version of “worse,” and we are all so quick to judge women like the ones I spend an hour with every other week. Clearly, this time of year is spun as a time of gratitude but for so many people, there seems to be little to be grateful for. However, if all it takes is to sing to make us feel inspired, and to make us laugh at ourselves for forgetting the words to a song, well, I’ve learned yet one more thing from these incredibly strong women.

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1 Comment

  1. Dan

    Powerful sharing of a powerful experience. Your compassion for your students comes through, and I am sure it makes them value your workshop even more.

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