For those who know why a caged bird sings

Dr. Maya Angelou unarguably was one of the greatest poets who ever lived. Gifted with the strength of words, she was able to craft poetry and prose that spoke to the listener in such a way that your soul stirred. Her work was able to transcend racial and gender lines and is timeless in its relevance.

I first became acquainted with her work in the early 90's while a high school student. I competed in UIL competitions and began looking for literary pieces to recite that would also provide an outlet for my insecurities, fears and pain which were often masked by conceit, pride and anger.

As I began to embark on a pageant career, it was almost expected that any Black female contestant who was going to recite poetry would do a Maya Angelou piece. Fast forward twenty years and I continue to see her work demonstrated on pageant stages.

Of all of her works, there are three that have really impacted my life.

Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
When I performed my version of this powerful poem, it was a pure reflection of my high school torment. Often outcast from the popular crowd and misunderstood by teachers, I felt that I was constantly being put down, mocked or disrespected. Reciting this poem allowed me to verbalize my frustration at all those against me and reiterated to my inner self that despite all these life challenges, I would rise and could rise.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,   
The stride of my step,   
The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.   
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,   
And the flash of my teeth,   
The swing in my waist,   
And the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,   
They say they still can’t see.   
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,   
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
The need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I think 3 out of 4 of my friends can recite this poem from memory. It is so highly regarded that it was almost a Black women's anthem in my youth. Every word that was spoken when reciting this poem makes the woman embrace her own beauty through society's imperfections and speaks to the inner beauty at the core of being a woman. Not just any woman but a PHENOMENAL woman-always proud, always striving, always being true to oneself.

And the last poem is the most painful for me to openly discuss. Think of a beautiful bird in a cage....often admired as people look into the cage unaware that there are things going in the cage that are trying to keep the beautiful bird from soaring to the heights that God intended for all his creatures. 

A free bird leaps on the back of the wind   
and floats downstream till the current ends
and dips his wing in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill   
of things unknown but longed for still   
and his tune is heard on the distant hill   
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill   
of things unknown but longed for still   
and his tune is heard on the distant hill   
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

You see....I know why a caged bird sings. I know that the caged bird sings with a fearful trill and the bird that is free takes that freedom for granted; never coming back to free the caged bird from captivity. And I am here to tell you that when a caged bird is set free, he is going to fly and fly and fly as far away from his captor and into a sky that will welcome him with open arms. Rest in peace Maya Angelou. I will forever be grateful that you shared the wonderful gift of YOU with the world.


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