This week’s post comes from teaching-writer Sagirah Shahid.
In his 1899 poem “Sympathy,” Paul Laurence Dunbar captured some of the emotional weightiness of what it means to be Black in America. The son of enslaved Africans, Dunbar wrote his poem while working for the Library of Congress, where he was the first African American to hold this position. In the poem, Dunbar used the metaphor of a free bird and a caged bird to speak to his experiences and frustrations. The poem’s power has resonated through generations. It’s the inspiration for Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird,” a poem that continues on Dunbar’s analysis by specifying that a caged bird sings despite the circumstances of its environment, “the caged bird sings of freedom.”
At the South Education Center, Selena and I discussed the power of this poem and its metaphors. We talked about freedom, what it means, what the stakes are. We also observed the power of connecting an emotion to an environment. Which objects or things in that environment can help us communicate a central emotion that we want readers to understand and connect to? Selena wrote this poem in response:
This poem is almost like an echo of its ancestor poems. It understands that grief and joy have a complicated relationship. There’s also a thread of hopefulness in Selena’s poem. Through the observations of the poem’s narrator, we may not know all the reasons why this particular boy plays his songs into the wind, into the sea, but we know we want him to play again. Selena’s powerful poem gives us permission to participate in empathy and a hopefulness that echoes beyond the page. You can read this poem and other poems by Selena by buying a copy of her debut collection The Fairytale, The Dragon Above The Star.