Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the son of formerly enslaved people. He was well-known for using African American Vernacular English in his poetry, as well as writing essays and short stories that were searing critiques of racism in the Jim Crow era. One can see the line – in rhetoric and experience – between Dunbar and another famous poet, Maya Angelou.


By Paul Laurence Dunbar

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!
Reflection: The symbolism of the bird as freedom and the cage as oppression is an important metaphor throughout many cultures. Let us reflect on this metaphor as we experience this global pandemic and the uprising for Black lives as a community and the significance of the places from which we are observe and participate in this revolution.
Share with a friend