I'm Pretty Sure I Know Why The Caged Bird SingsCommentary • Opinion • ISSUE 41•03 • Jan 19, 2005 By Madeleine Schumann Madeleine Schumann I must admit that, at first, I wasn't sure if I was going to like the African-American Lit class I signed up for. I had to take it because it was the only humanities class available at 9:20 on Wednesdayslong storyand I just couldn't see what black lit had to do with pre-med. But you know what? Once I started listeningreally listeningto what these beautiful writers had to say, I found myself totally inspired by the incredible black men and women who suffered so much because of their skin color and the fact that they had hardly any money. And even though I know that, as a white person, I will never really have a complete understanding of the black experience, I have to say that I now have a fairly good idea why the caged bird sings. Growing up in the affluent suburb of Sherwood Oaks, I didn't meet a lot of black people. There just weren't too many of them around. In fact, I don't think there were any at all. I used to think Sherwood Oaks High was the greatest place on earth, but since I started college, I've been exposed to so many more cultural perspectives. I've really grown as a person. Sure, I had some super fun times at Sherwood. I'll never forget my prom nightthe only word I can use to describe it is magical. But looking back, I can't believe how sheltered I was! I was so naïve! I didn't know anything about Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, or any of the other African-American writers who broadened my worldview last semester. During my entire prom, I did not once think about all the suffering blacks and their novels and poetry and personal memoirs. I didn't think for two seconds about all of the black women being raped by their fathers and brothers. Where were their magical prom nights? They didn't have any, because they were trapped in cages, singing. Not in physical cages, but in metaphorical ones constructed by society. Like I said before, I'm not 100-percent clear on all of this. But even if I don't completely understand, at least I understand how little I used to understand. And that is totally the beginning of understanding. Before last semester, I didn't have any black friends. I still don't, but I do have some black classmates. And if I ever meet any black people socially, I will totally be up for hanging out, now that I know where they are coming from. When I was in high school, I only knew about black people from seeing them on television. But the book versions of their lives tell you so much more about who black people truly are. Through the spiritual, soulful, and musical quality of their lyrical writing, certain universal themes transcended the cultural barrier, and I came to realize that I can totally relate. Take, for example, Langston Hughes' famous couplet, "My motto as I live and learn is: dig and be dug in return." I understood that right away. It's like my Dad always says: "You scratch my back, and I scratch yours." One hand washes the other, you know? That's exactly the kind of philosophy that allowed my dad to become such a successful and respected CEO. It's about mutual advantage and common interest, like when two corporations merge for the benefit of both. If only we could learn to live that way as human beings, then maybe there would be no ghettos. It really makes you think. Other parts of the class were harder for me to grasp intuitively, and I had to struggle with them, just like the blacks had to struggle before civil rights made them equal. Like this one poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, "We Real Cool." I knew that gangs were a big problem in certain neighborhoodsor as some members of the black community call them, "'hoods." But as a white person, it was hard for me to understand what motivates a black person to join a gang. I mean, I never left school or "lurked late" or "sang sin" or any of the things the black people do in the poem. And I certainly never "jazzed June," which I had to ask my T.A. about during discussion section. So I was a bit confused. Like, why would they "thin gin," I wondered. That would only water it down. Then I realized they were probably too poor to afford enough gin, and that just broke my heart. Because of cultural differences, I still can't relate to why they think it's so cool that they're going to die soon, but the poem spoke to me nonetheless. Yeah, I'm pretty sure I got it. Even though I'm a white pre-med student with a Tri-Delt legacy, I understood, mostly, why the caged bird sings. It sings because it longs to be free. Even though it's trapped in a cage, it refuses to be silenced. It still has hope, and it still has something beautiful to give the world. See? I asked my boyfriend why the caged bird sings, and he said maybe it's because it likes being inside a cage, because it's lazy and too stupid to get out, which I told him right out was rude. If he'd gone through the living hell of prejudice like Maya Angelou had, I told him, then maybe he might be tired and undereducated, too. And then we broke up. After all the changes I've gone through in the past 14 weeks, I couldn't keep dating someone so insensitive.