The Caged Bird Today

I know why the caged birds 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.

Excerpted from Dunbar’s “Sympathy”

Read more about Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar Analysis & Poem by

Today I had my 8th grade students read and annotate Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” As we discussed the metaphor for Black people during slavery, their fight for freedom, and turn to prayer my mind was in deep contemplation regarding its modern day meaning in my life. Race has always been at the forefront of my psyche and analysis of institutional injustice, but as of lately class has moved from the periphery to take its rightful place at the crossroads with race. Just 30 minutes ago I was sitting in the NYCHA office breaking my mother’s lease. My mother lived in these projects for over two decades of my life. These buildings first started being constructed in New York City during the 1930s and 1940s. They were and still are meant to provide low income families with a place to live. So there I sat, surrounded by these mint green concrete walls fighting to hold back tears as they tell me that my mom will probably have to pay a couple months of rent and a fee for not clearing out the apartment and properly ending the lease. Granted, the couple of months rent is my fault since I did not break the lease sooner. However, my mom was sick and is disabled, how could she possibly clear out that apartment? I find that our accountability to bureaucracy often trumps humanity, which can be brutal. Just a year ago they were offering her $5,000 to move out anyway. That’s gentrification for you. Regardless of whose fault these fees were, it just reminded me of the privilege of being wealthy. IF I were of the class possessing old money or even new money backed by assets, a few thousand dollars would mean nothing. However, every month or so I’m presented with the daunting reminder that any moment a financial crisis could make or break my family. We don’t have much to fall back on. To many, a $400-$500 monthly loan repayment doesn’t bother them much, but for me it creates a real sense of anxiety. My cage is financial instability that I am fighting desperately to break away from with wings that are bloody red. These are the effects of capitalism.

I’m reminded of Hughe’s poem “Harlem,” and the raisin carrying this heavy load trying desperately not to explode. I’ve never bought into the American Dream. All people in the U.S. simply do not have a fair chance at achieving their dreams, institutional racism, sexism, and classism guarantee that. So here I am, two degrees down from a top 10 university and one on the way from another, fighting for financial security. I never believed the degrees would be my ticket to freedom, but I sure thought they would help and I still do, but not because of the knowledge and skills I’ve developed, but more so because of the networks. I’m an academic at heart and I love learning and devising ways to improve society, idealistic I know, I’m the line with infinite possibilities as described by Asagai in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Right now, I’m at a crossroads where my education is both a blessing and a curse. As the end of Dunbar’s poem suggest, I turn to prayer and faith as my source of continued motivation. There is a surge, a level of dissatisfaction driving me to think and do differently.

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