Sympathy, by Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Reflection of the African American's Struggle for Freedom

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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...

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...e caged bird sings a pretty tune, not because it is happy with its situation, or out of a desire to please its owner, but to alert other birds to its plight and also to try to keep depression from overcoming it. Its only lifeline was its singing. During slavery, black people often sung, not because they loved being slaves, but because they were singing escape codes to other slaves and to hang on mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, that they would one day be set free.

Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote this poem to illustrate the station in life for so many African Americans. It is clear that African Americans were "caged" in society at the turn of the century and wanted desperately to be seen as equal to whites. However, at the time this poem was written, black people had little hope of achieving that goal. That was a hypocrisy in the "Land of the Free."

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