I know why the caged bird sings! – Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘Sympathy’ as a library poem #colourfullreads

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;

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American to make a living from his literary production. Between 1890 and 1905 he published novels, short stories and poems in both dialect and standard English styles. His 1899 poem ‘Sympathy’ ends with “I know why the caged bird sings!“: words that would catch the eye of anyone familiar with the titles of Maya Angelou books. While at first glance these lines might resonate with any indoor worker looking longingly out of the window “When the sun is bright on the upland slopes“, there are particular library connections to the emotional predicament in which the poet finds himself.

Dunbar worked as a clerk in the U.S. Library of Congress from September 1897 to December 1898. His role was to retrieve and re-shelve scientific and medical materials from the Library’s closed stacks. Shelvers have a vital role in any library, but the tides and currents of intellectual life for the scholars in the Reading Room tend to look like a never-ending torrent of items to be taken off or put back onto shelves in the stacks for those working behind the scenes.

In a 1914 article, his widow, the poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson, said that the iron gratings of the bookstacks of the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird’s cage. “The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one” (Dunbar, 1914).  In the summers, particularly, the Washington heat and the dry dust of the books and stacks must have pressed upon him, making his existing health conditions worse. Eventually it was ill-health that forced him to ask to be relieved of his tasks there, though his letter of notice to end his employment spoke of freeing up time to focus on his literary work.

Camille Roman (2006) claims that it was the predominantly Enlightenment view of the texts Dunbar worked with, and their assumption of the limited reasoning capabilities of Africans, like him, that was getting him down. An earlier poem, in his black dialect style, The Ol’ Tunes, explored a sense of being constrained, of not being allowed ‘to sing’ in his own preferred voice:

How I long ag’in to hear ’em
Pourin’ forth from soul to soul,
With the treble high an’ meller,
An’ the bass’s mighty roll;
But the times is very diff’rent,
An’ the music heerd to-day
Ain’t the singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.

It was not just that the poet couldn’t sing as he might have wished, the climate in which he worked forced him into a kind of self-censorship:

An’ ef you should even think it
‘T is n’t proper fur to say
That you want to hear the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.

In Sympathy’s second stanza Dunbar says that the sense of constraint is long-standing:

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!

These ‘old, old scars’ may point beyond the immediate setting of the day job to the history and experience of slavery that African-Americans had endured up the Dunbar’s parents generation. Continuing beyond the formal end of slavery with emancipation after the Civil War among the States were the cultural assumptions that so often worked to frustrate the aspirations of people like Dunbar. One example of this was the positive, but patronising, praise Dunbar’s work received from the eminent novelist William Dean Howells. While Dunbar was praised as “the first man of his color to study his race objectively”, readers were directed to the dialect verse at the expense of the standard English poems they might otherwise find easier to appreciate. The response of the critics and the demands of the literature-buying public both proved to be cages acting as restraints on Dunbar’s potential range as a writer.

Nevertheless the Library of Congress provided some opportunities for the young poet and helped him to advance his career. In November 1897 he became the first poet to give a public reading in the Library. It took place shortly after the opening of the Library’s reading room for the blind. There ware repeated readings and they proved popular with both blind and sighted attendees.

Libraries, more generally, continue to provide a site for this kind of engagement. It was on the shelves of DMU’s Kimberlin library that I found a copy of The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. The #colourfullreads campaign is a further attempt to encourage readers to encounter the voices of people whose experiences may differ from their own.

Roman, C. (2006). The Caged Bird’s Song and Its (Dis)Contents. Pacific Coast Philology,41, 32-38. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.dmu.ac.uk/stable/25474197
 Armeti, P. The Caged Bird Sings: Paul Laurence Dunbar at the Library of Congress
 Dunbar, A.M., (1914) “The Poet and His Song”.  The A.M.E. Review

About Philip Adams

Senior Assistant Librarian at De Montfort University. I am interested in digital preservation and the use of data to measure a library's impact. All comments own.
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