The Caged Bird: A Tribute to Paul Laurence Dunbar


The main character of one of my novels is nicknamed “Birdie.” Short for “Alberta.” Birdie has been named after her father. Like many Ericas, Claudias, and Robertas, sons had been expected for Eric, Claudia, and Robert. As well as Albert.

Creating Birdie got me thinking about how many writers make use of birds in their work. Birds inhabit book titles as mockingbirds and goldfinches. They nest among words as symbols and metaphors: a dove for peace; a crow for death; a phoenix for rebirth. They may be the very reason for the work itself: Keats’s skylark or Poe’s raven.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was a beloved citizen of Dayton, Ohio, and a nationally acclaimed black poet. We remember him for many reasons: his friendship with the Wright brothers; his use of dialect in poetry; the elite Washington, D.C. school that bears his name and the first exclusively African-American high school in America.

But I remember him best for the image he left us, the image of the “caged bird.” To me, it represents the quintessential metaphor for the African-American experience.

The caged bird appears in the lines of Dunbar’s 1899 poem “Sympathy”:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright in 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 buds 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 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.

Most people believe that the “caged bird” image was given to us by Maya Angelou, but she actually borrowed Dunbar’s line to use as the title for her memoir I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. I like giving credit to Dunbar for the line. The caged bird is a brilliant image that embodies, pain, struggle, longing for liberation, and – above all – a people’s history.

So skylarks and nightingales certainly have their place, but for me the bird that triumphs as a literary metaphor belongs to Paul Laurence Dunbar.

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