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.

Right to Bare Arms

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On this day, August 18th, 1920 Tennessee became the last of the 36 states required to ratify the 19th Amendment to the American Constitution, giving Women the Right to Vote.

The constitution was ratified in 1788 and it only took 132 years for Americans to give women a vote.  Of course a vote and equality are very different things.  The unratified equal rights amendment sought to have men and women treated equally under the law.  Initially proposed in 1923 it has never been ratified.  It almost got over the line in the 1970’s when a conservative womens group hamstrung the amendment to protect their alimony and avoid military service.  So to this day men and women in the USA are not equal.

Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1965 during the U.S. Civil War.  The Civil Rights Act in 1964, 100 years later, was passed to attempt to right some of the wrongs in US society such as the Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination.

School shootings are nothing new in the USA.  They have been happening since the 1840’s but a whole new type of school shooting incident kicked off in 1979.  Irish punk band The Boomtown Rats were in a US radio station when the news came in that 16 year old Brenda Spencer shot and killed the principal and janitor and wounded 8 children and a police officer in Cleveland Elementary San Diego.  A reporter managed to make contact with Brenda and asked her why she did it.  Her response was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

Bob Geldof and Johnnie Fingers wrote the song “I don’t like Mondays” and every teenager in Ireland and the UK became aware of the phenomenon of the school shooting.

There have been mass shootings since then in many countries including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, France etc.  In EVERY SINGLE CASE the event led to a change in the laws.  Pardon me, not every single case.  The Cleveland Elementary shooting did not lead to a change in the US laws.

These days a school shooting where only 2 people die would not get 5 minutes air time in the USA.  There were 28 recorded school shooting events up to May 7th of 2019.

In terms of absolute records the Beslan school massacre where 334 died will hopefully never be bested.  But that was a terrorist attack rather than a school shooting.  Top of the death poll in the USA remains the Bath school disaster of 1927 when a Michigan school board treasurer firebombed his farm and the school in an act of revenge because he was not elected as township clerk.

In the modern era of nihilistic mass murder the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shootings lead the posse.

If you look at the list of School Massacres by Death Toll on wikipedia you could make the case that USA is only an “also ran” in the tables.  The key difference with the USA is the reaction against any change to the 2nd Amendment rights.  States can, do and have made changes to gun licencing laws in the USA.  Indeed many opponents of the gun lobby make the case that it is states that SHOULD make the changes.  There is a strong lobby in the USA for states rights and to limit the power of the federal government.

This should be nothing unusual to Europeans who are members of the European Union.  Nation states in the EU are very protective of their unique voices within the union.  Here in Irealand we become very worked up when voices in France and Germany suggest that our corporate taxes are too low.

It took 132 years for American women to get a vote.  It took 100 years from the Civil War for Black Americans to secure meaningful laws, and that has not yet translated into equality of opportunity.  Change is slow, painfully slow.  But change does come.  The USA will never give up the right to bear arms, but without doubt change will come about to limit who can bear arms, how many arms and what type of arms.  I expect that when people read this blog post in 100 years they will say “any day now”.

PS if you did read this my sincere apologies.  It is a very badly written rambling flow.

African American Beauty

Black Beauty

199 years old today Anna Sewell is the famous author of Black Beauty, one of the ten best selling childrens novels ever written.  Born to a Quaker family in 1820 in Norfolk in England.

In 1807 the UK parliament passed the Slave Trade Act which banned slave trade but not slave ownership.  In 1833 the UK parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act which banned slavery in the British Empire.  Sewell lived to see the emancipation proclamation in the USA in 1863.  She also lived long enough to see the Jim Crow laws passed in the USA ushereing in an age of apartheid to replace the age of slavery.

As a child growing up in Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s I was oblivious to the problems with the word “Black”.  In that Ireland we did not have black people.  Irish people left this island for opportunity abroad, nobody came here.

Besides, in the Irish language the black man “An Fear Dubh” is a nickname for the Devil.  People with black skin were called Fir Goirme (Blue men).

Over time we have seen people struggle with how to address the issue of skin colour.  The word Negro has fallen out of fashion, and yet the “N” word is used prolifically in Hip-Hop culture when people of colour refer to each other.  It is only banned in the mouths of whites.

People of colour.  African-american.  Black african.  They are all terms with issues.  I heard a white American refer to a Black British work colleague as “African-American” and the British guy laughed when he heard.  He said “I’m neither African nor American mate, I come from Birmingham”.

British black people, who were emancipated in the 19th century, appear to have fewer hangups than Americans.  Ditto for the French black population.  As far back as WW1 American Negroes who wanted to fight had to enlist with Canadian or French regiments.  Those who enlisted with the French were astounded when they were treated as equals.

Black americans have never been treated as equals and quite rightly struggle with the word black.  Black carries many negative connotations in the English language. Gloomy, dirty, angry, evil and wicked are all meanings of black.  White by contrast represents purity, cleanliness, goodness, honesty, all the good stuff.

So the word black has developed many deep and symbolic meanings.  Black power.  Black lives matter.  Black and proud.  Blacksploitation.

I suspect if Anna Sewell wrote her book today the publisher might toy with the title.  After all there is no “official” colour for horses that is black.  A black horse is usually either a Grey or a Bay or even a very dark Chestnut.  After all, look at the problems caused by the name of a dog in the Dam Busters movie.  It has caused huge difficulties with a remake.  It raises the important question: “Do we change historical facts to assuage modern PC sensibilities?”  The danger is that we begin to rewrite history to suit modern attitudes, and that leads us to a 1984 dystpoia of alternative facts and post-truth.

 

 

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.