The Caged Bird

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Here is a story from Persia and three American poems that reference the tale.

The great 13th Century Persian poet called Rumi visited a village where a merchant asked   “Master Rumi, my favorite possession is my bird.   But her wings and head droop every day, and no longer is my house filled with her sweet song. I have brought medicine and healthy food, yet nothing seems to banish its illness. Will you come to my house and see this bird?”

Rumi saw into the man’s heart.   It was hardened all around like stone, for the merchant was desirous only of his own gain. “This man’s heart is imprisoned in a cage,” he thought to himself. The merchant led the poet to his fine house and there by the window stood a large cage with a lovely plumed bird inside.   True to the merchant’s words the bird appeared to possess little vitality as though ill.   Then Rumi began to sing a song and as his soothing words fell upon the ears of the bird, first it began to twitter then at last began to join its voice to the melody of the poet. Then it let off abruptly and returned to its former state.

Rumi said to the merchant, “the bird is unhappy because it longs for its freedom.”   To which the merchant replied, “I will give the bird anything that it asks for that is within my power, but I cannot grant its freedom. I am traveling tomorrow for India and will return in forty days. Ask the bird if there is something that I can bring to it from its homeland.”

The poet whispered quietly to the bird who immediately began to flap its wings and burst into a short song.   The merchant was overjoyed to see his favorite possession restored to health.   Rumi then told the merchant that the bird would be fully restored if he were to do the following: While he was in India, he should visit the nearby forest where birds similar to his own live, and announce to them that one of their sisters is captive within his home.

Several weeks later, when the merchant was in India, he hurried out to the nearby forest.   He announced to the birds there, “one of your sisters lives captive in a cage at my home.”   No sooner had the merchant spoken these words, then one of the wild birds fell senseless to the ground from one of the boughs of the trees.

When he returned home to his village he approached the cage and speaking softly to the bird told it of the misfortune that he had encountered in the forest. “I have sad news for you my friend, for when I told the others of your captivity, one of your sisters fell immediately to the ground dead.”

As soon as these words were spoken, the bird collapsed and fell to the bottom of the cage. The merchant was aghast. “What misfortune is this! Now my bird is dead too!” he exclaimed. Sorrowfully, he plucked the dead bird from the cage and placed it by the window sill. At once, the bird revived, flew out the window and perched on a branch far out of reach of the merchant. “What is the meaning of this?” he cried.   Then, through the power bestowed by the poet the bird began to speak and the merchant understood its language. “You brought not sad news to me, but the way to my freedom,” said the bird, “for my forest sister showed by her action what I had to do in order to free myself.   O man, may your heart be set free to fly from the cage of your greed before it perishes in its captivity.”

Then the bird flew away, free at last.

Born on this day in the year 1849 in Maine USA Sarah Orne Jewett knew nothing of why the caged bird sings.  Her Canary is like a pretty but ofttimes petulant slave, kept safe and well fed by the master, but demanding the little luxuries of life. Despite growing up during the US Civil War and seeing emancipation first hand she experienced it as a WASP with none of the concerns of inequality, poverty, lack of education, opportunity or outright discrimination.

How different is the reply from Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem “Sympathy” below.  He finishes with the iconic line “I know why the caged bird sings”. Dunbar was born in 1872 after the Civil War, after emancipation.  He was born in Ohio to parents who were Kentucky slaves before slavery was abolished.  Born free, but knowing so much about inequality.  Dunbar experienced the false promises of the Reconstruction Era and the gradual decline of Black Civil Rights into the Jim Crow laws.

The Dunbar line became the title of Maya Angelou‘s 1969 autobiography.  Born in 1928 Angelou is one of the most popular poets in the world today, and yet she also experienced the deep rooted inequality of the United States.  A century after emancipation the Civil Rights movement was still struggling for the rights of the slaves now free for 100 years.

A Caged Bird; by Sarah Orne Jewett

High at the window in her cage
the old canary flits and sings,
nor sees across the curtain pass
the shadow of a swallow’s wings.

A poor deceit and copy, this,
of larger lives that mark their span,
unreckoning of wider worlds
or gifts that Heaven keeps for man.

She gathers piteous bits and shreds,
this solitary, mateless thing,
to patient build again the nest
so rudely scattered spring by spring;

and sings her brief, unlisted songs,
her dreams of bird life wild and free,
yet never beats her prison bars
at sound of song from bush or tree.

But in my busiest hours I pause,
held by a sense of urgent speech,
bewildered by that spark-like soul,
able my very soul to reach.

She will be heard; she chirps me loud,
when I forget those gravest cares,
her small provision to supply,
clear water or her seedsman’s wares.

She begs me now for that chief joy
the round great world is made to grow,
her wisp of greenness. Hear her chide,
because my answering thought is slow!

What can my life seem like to her?
A dull, unpunctual service mine;
stupid before her eager call,
her flitting steps, her insight fine.

To open wide thy prison door,
poor friend, would give thee to thy foes;
and yet a plaintive note I hear,
as if to tell how slowly goes

the time of thy long prisoning.
Bird! Does some promise keep thee sane?
Will there be better days for thee?
Will thy soul too know life again?

Ah, none of us have more than this:
If one true friend green leaves can reach
from out some fairer, wider place,
and understand our wistful speech!

 

Sympathy; by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
when the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
and the river flows like a stream of glass;
when the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
and the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
for he must fly back to his perch and cling
when he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
and a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
and they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!

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 deep core,
but a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

 

Caged Bird; by 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.

Work of a lifetime

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Born in 1950 in Derry, Northern Ireland,  Martin McGuinness grew up in the worst era for Catholics in Northern Ireland.  They were discriminated against so badly in Protestant Northern Ireland that they emulated Black Americans such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in setting up non-violent civil rights protests against the regime.

Through the 1960’s just as in America, the ruling class escalated the use of violence to break the protests.  McGuinness joined the IRA and was, at only 21 years of age, the second in command of the Derry Provisional IRA when British Paratroopers murdered 14 civil rights protesters in Bloody Sunday.

He was imprisoned, treated as a terrorist by a British Regime under Maggie Thatcher.  A British Government that seemed hell bent on destroying the nationalist cause by violence, intolerance and general all round hatefulness.

Elected to Stormont in 1982 in the wake of the hunger strikes and the death of Bobby Sands he, like all Sinn Féin, did not take his seat.

McGuinness went on to become the chief negotiator of the Good Friday Agreement and he took personal responsibility for disarming the IRA.

On this day, his birthday, in 1998 the people of Northern Ireland voted on the Agreement in a referendum.  75% of the people of Northern Ireland voted for peace.

Think about that.  25% of the Northern Irish wanted to continue the violence, the death and destruction.  Who are these people?

McGuinness was cast by his enemies as a villain and a terrorist.  But this is a man who worked tirelessly for peace all his life.  A short life in the end.  He passed away last year aged only 66.

Martin lived to see his life’s work come to fruition.  Northern Ireland is not a finished object and there is a long road to go to reconciliation.  That 25% of nay sayers is still up there looking to bring the whole thing crashing down about our ears.  Don’t let them.

 

Happy Birthday Countee Cullen

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African Americans had a brief flowering of liberty and creativity in the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War in the USA.  This was brought to a sharp end by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the passing of the Jim Crow laws.

In the 1920’s there was a cultural, social and literary flowering of creativity by the grandchildren of the reconstruction era negroes.  Known at the time as the New Negro Movement it is now called the Harlem Renaissance.  Countee Cullen was one of the leading lights of this movement.

This poem is interesing to me because it is so evocative of the WB Yeats “He Wishes for the cloths of heaven”.  While Yeats wrote of the lovers angst Cullen’s poem speaks of discrimination and racism.  Here we are today 100 years on from the Harlem Renaissance and it seems that the struggle for equality for African Americans has seen little advance.  Despite the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X the USA still appears to be dangerous ground on which to be a black person.

For a Poet; by Countee Cullen

I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold;
Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
I hide no hate; I am not even wroth
Who found the earth’s breath so keen and cold;
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.

Strange bedfellows

Relations between the Irish and the Blacks in America have often been at odds.  When hundreds of thousands of poor Irish fled the great famine and emigrated to America they found themselves at the bottom of society.  Between 1845 and 1852 the starving Irish boarded coffin ships and threw themselves on the mercy of America.

We Irish need to remember this as we observe the flood of refugees and economic migrants who daily put their lives at risk in Libya, boarding unsuitable vessels in their droves and casting their lot on the waters of the Mediterranean.

There are anecdotal tales from America of wealthy landowners hiring Irish workers for dangerous jobs because they didn’t want to risk a valuable slave.

Irish people living in slave states found themselves in competition for work with Negros.  They opposed the freeing of slaves as this would release a workforce in direct competition to them.  Even in the free states of the north the Irish immigrants found themselves in competition with Negros for the lowest and most menial jobs.  These Irish were in ill health, uneducated and many could not even speak English.  The only advantage they held over the Negro was the colour of their skin.

At the same time the Irish could identify with the plight of the American Blacks.  The Irish were no strangers to transportation and slavery.  Many of the original slaves in Caribbean sugar plantations were Irish and Scottish petty criminals or indentured labourers.  The tiny island of Montserrat reflects this influx, most of the inhabitants have Irish names despite their dark skin, and the island holds St Patrick’s day as a holiday.

The Irish who arrived in America emerged from a culture of persecution by Absentee British Landlords and their local Bailiffs.  Unlike farm tenants in England the Irish cottagers were little more than serfs, subsisting in a non-monetary economy with no rights of tenure, rent control or free sale of their property.  They understood much about the life of a slave.

This conflict between sympathy and competiton resolved itself in the Civil War of 1861 to 65 when Irish elected to fight on both sides.  Indeed at the battle of Fredricksburg the 69th New York Infantry (The Irish Brigade) was decimated at the Sunken Road below Marye’s Heights.  Their opponents were the 24th Georgia regiment, comprising McMillans Guards, an Irish regiment.

After the civil war the fate of the Irish in America diverged sharply from that of the Negro.  The Irish became educated and worked their way into positions of political power.  Many Irish gravitated to careers in law enforcement and public service.  While the men worked hard the mothers drove their children to education and improvement.  Lace curtains went up on the windows and the Irish integrated.  Eventually, in the 1960’s the scion of an Irish immigrant family became President of the United States.

There was no ‘risk’ of a black president of the USA in the 1960’s.  This was the age of the struggle for civil rights.

In a perverse twist of fate it was the black struggle for civil rights in America that ignited the Catholic struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland.  The Irish learned from Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.  Peace protest marches began, and they ended similarly to the marches in Birmingham Alabama, in violence, persecution and death.

Here is a piece of footage and a highly poignant moment from that time.  Muhammad Ali reciting his own poem on an Irish TV show.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNrNpw7hmcE

Emmett Till

60 years ago on this day, Aug 28th, 1955 Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi, for speaking to a white woman.

The two white men primarily responsible for his torture, mutilation and murder were acquitted.  Under the protection of “Double Jeopardy” legislation they subsequently admitted that they killed the 14 year old boy.

Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’     J. W. Milam, Look magazine, 1956

The murder and mutilation of Till sparked a campaign to redress human rights violations in the USA and led to the Civil Rights Movement.  Given the spate of shootings of black people by white policemen captured on video in recent years there is a way to go to normalise relationships between whites and blacks in the USA.

60 years have passed and Mississippi remains the only US state to incorporate the Confederate Battle Flag into the State Flag.  If the people of Mississippi no longer agree with the sentiments expressed above then I think it is time to change the flag.

Maybe go back to the Magnolia flag which was used by the state from 1861 to 1894?

Magnolia flag

The Death of Emmett Till; by Bob Dylan

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till

Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up
They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what
They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat
There were screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street

Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain
The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie
Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly die

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind

I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live