I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I’m an avid reader, so I was stunned a few years back at a seminar in which one of the exercises was, “Write down the title of your favorite book.” The question wasn’t unusual. That I could think of only one title from the thousands of books I’d read dumbfounded me.

I scrawled:

I thought the exercise was leading to why I should spend more time writing, that literary background and interests would be revealed as important to me. Only one title could I extract from the mush between my ears.

Before I killed myself, the facilitator began the next question. That was close!

“Write down why that is your favorite book”

I became as mute as a child to whom an answer is too obvious to mention. But to be a good student, I put pencil to paper, “because I do.”

Can’t say I could have described the contents of the book. Clearly its title gripped me, and I felt my life an example of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem by the same title. Here’s the middle stanza:

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 bow aswing.
And the blood still throbs in the old, old scars
and they pulse again with a keener sting.
I know why he beats his wing.

I recently reread Maya Angelou’s tome, the first in a three-book autobiography. My childhood was not nearly so despicable. I was the fair-haired, white-skinned darling she always wanted to be, dreamed herself the long blond hair. Nor did I read as deeply as she or memorize great literature.

I realized her story was not about abuse or poverty or being shipped off to be raised by someone else — all events our young lives shared to a greater or lesser extent. Maya’s story was about being black in a white world. About being a woman in a man’s world (ok, mine, too). About educating herself and early on differentiating between ignorance and lack of education.

She started lower and rose higher — flew farther and still flies farther — than I. Rereading the book showed me how dissimilar our lives always have been.

But that day the in workshop on finding one’s life purpose…

I knew why the caged bird sings,
When its wings were bruised and its bosom sore.
And the blood still throbbed in the old, old scars
It beat its bars so it could fly free. [adapted]

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