Songs of the Caged Bird


“I know why the caged bird sings,” wrote Paul Laurence Dunbar.  It is “a prayer the he sends from his heart’s deep core. . .a plea that upward to heaven he flings—I know why the caged bird sings.”

Slaves in the cotton fields sang, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home.”  Civil rights marchers sang, “Deep in my heart/I do believe/we shall overcome some day.” 

My coal miner ancestors, indentured to the company store, came together in their little white frame church to sing gospel songs from shaped note hymnals, songs which promised them “amazing grace” and gave them “blessed assurance” that they would “understand it better by and by.”

The caged bird sings.

Most of the time, we think freedom has to do with being uncaged, with being in control, independent, and autonomous.  Sometimes, though, life takes us into experiences which strip-away our illusions of independence and severely limit our range of control. The conditions of life prove stronger than our ability to resist them.  Illness incarcerates us, or grief locks us up, or tragedy traps us, or crisis confines us.  We’re caged.

What does freedom mean then? Familiarly, Victor Frankl wrote, from his experience in a Nazi prison camp: “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Freedom rests, finally, not on the conditions and circumstances of our lives, but on the persons we are and on the responses we make.  We have choices, even when caged. 

I believe we can choose to cooperate with the liberating mercy and sustaining grace which are at the heart of Love, a love I have seen and felt in Jesus.  That mercy and grace make it possible to feel hope rising in the most desperate places, to sense joy’s surprising presence in dreary and drab circumstances, and to taste sweet freedom in the bitterest conditions.  

Poet Kay Ryan said, “Nothing is exempt from resurrection.”  Not even the caged bird.