Sympathy, by Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Reflection of the African American's Struggle for Freedom
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bud sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals--
I know what the caged bird feels!
"Sympathy" was written by Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1899, right at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It is a poem about the caged bird who wants to be free and tries, tries and tries again to break out of its cage. Each time, it is unable to break free and instead only injures itself, adding to injuries left over from past escapes. Dunbar depicts the bird's desperate and unsuccessful struggle for freedom and images of nature, that beckon outside. The first paragraph touches on the situation that black people faced at the turn of the century.
Black people ahd recently been freed as slaves, but there was still no racial equality. The Supreme Court had recently upheld Plessy vs. Ferguson, which allowed "separate but equal." In reality, it gave the government and business license to discriminate against black people. In the 1890's, most blacks were reduced to holding poorly paid jobs, or being servants in people's homes. They were barred from most educational and economic opportunities enjoyed by whites.
Dunbar uses the analogy of the caged bird and nature outside to the situation that black people faced in the 1890's. Blacks had been emancipated in 1863, but they did not achieve equality with white people for another century. Black people did not have the same opportunities as whites and were seen as inferior. In a way, black people were stuck in the "cage," with no hope for release. That is what the poem "Sympathy" touches on.
The caged bird sees tantalizing images of nature right outside the bars, but it cannot escape. Nature is off limits to the caged bird. At the turn of the century, America is growing and prospering. Immigrants are flooding the country, building their fortunes. Everywhere, ordinary common people are becoming millionaires. The standard of living is rising astronomically. New inventions, such as the automobile, telephone, electric lights, and motion pictures were springing up daily and people were building their fortunes off these inventions. People were growing rich, money was being made, but black people were left out. They were marginalized, often reduced to taking on low paying jobs, often serving white...