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I know why the caged bird stopped singing

At a young age, it was explained to me that the caged bird sang because the songs soothed her pain. As I grew, I too turned to music to soften the blows of life — black life. My songs, hopeful and cathartic, were the balm for an open wound; but they did not free me. And freedom is what I want. Singing is for those who are bound and understand that bound is how they may remain. Black people in America are singing less and less these days.

At a young age, it was explained to me that the caged bird sang because the songs soothed her pain. As I grew, I too turned to music to soften the blows of life — black life. My songs, hopeful and cathartic, were the balm for an open wound; but they did not free me. And freedom is what I want. Singing is for those who are bound and understand that bound is how they may remain. Black people in America are singing less and less these days.

Today, blacks are kneeling during national anthems, blocking highways, shutting down political rallies and retail shopping centers. And yes, occasionally we are even rioting. Why these methods? Because when you sing in a cage, often it's only the caged that hear your song. And we've sung in cages for so long. We have sung nicely, songs with lyrics asking for civilian oversight committees with substantial power to review police activities. Our caged lyrics have asked for justice — some sort of acknowledgment and retribution — when the innocent of our flock are killed. We have sung songs for years, pleading for some human to acknowledge the humanity in us.

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The response to our songs has been minimal. If we are heard at all, we are pacified and asked to sing a little softer. That black guy police killed was "a bad dude" they say. The big, unarmed black man looked demonic they say. We killed him because he didn't comply. The officer who shot him was black, too. There was no injustice because the judge who ruled against you was one of your own.

By now we've observed that a system designed to cage us will do so even if the keeper is our kin. What must we do to be heard? What song must we sing to move you? Is it even possible for us to sing your rhythms?

The Bible tells us that Israelites hung up their harps after continued taunting by their oppressors, demanding that they sing. Fatigued and heartbroken, they rebutted, "How can we sing the Lord's songs in a foreign land?" After singing for so long, foreign is how many blacks citizens feel.

Consequently, for many blacks the response today has become: we won't sing — we can't sing — any longer. We are stopping our songs because our voices cannot muster another funeral dirge; those melodies have made our ears ache through constant repetition. We are exhausted by the singing, and justice deferred has made our hearts sick.

The word used to describe those birds who stopped singing and set fire to a Charlotte highway was the same word used to describe Baltimore children who threw rocks at the menacing, corralling police who can legally murder them: "thugs." I gasped when I heard the term but exhaled when I remembered that those rebellious 1773 Bostonians who poured out large amounts of tea were deemed "ruffians." Such action in the face of impropriety is in our country's foundation.

Non-violent protest was introduced to America by black students and clergy appealing to the better angels of a country that caged innocent citizens, while allowing its demons to roam free. I salute and encourage the methods of those nonviolent birds of the civil rights era who sang through the locks of their doors, but I understand the contemporary blackbirds who have decided it best to sing a little less, and act out a little more. It's the American thing to do.

Darriel Harris is a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health; his email is dharr119@jhu.edu.

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