In movies, don’t you tire of the clichéd symbolism of a bird trapped in a cage? Look closely; it’s almost always there. Most recently, I saw it in Eat Pray Love. It was in Baz Luhrman’s Australia, in the indie-flick Real Women Have Curves, embedded in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and countless other Hollywood narratives that strived to be coy in their symbolism. But what I think people fail to realize is where that particular symbol stems from.
A quick mental search down memory lane may lead you to Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Good for you if you reached back that far in your academic memory. But we have yet to arrive at the origin. Although we would like to think that the literary mastermind that is Maya Angelou came up with this book title all by herself, think again. She too reached back into her memories of well-written poetry and into American history. Famed American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar came into view; in particular, his poem “Sympathy”. In the beginning of the third stanza, he writes, “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,” I’ve provided the rest of the poem below.
So look for it the next time you sit down to experience the latest Hollywood film, which involves a protagonist vying to escape their current physical or emotional destitution. More than likely you’ll find that caged bird.
Perhaps filmmakers can think of a new symbol instead of being so blatantly obvious with their attempts at subtle themes.
Can you tell I’m a bit annoyed at the caged bird? Haha, if nothing else, enjoy Dunbar’s poem below.
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 bird sings and the first bud 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 bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he 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!