The Songs of Caged Birds

2 03 2021

At our poetry discussion this past Sunday – where a group from Mt. Vernon Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, VA, joined with siblings at Faith Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, to discuss Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird” – a great deal of time was spent considering the two different versions of Christianity that are being espoused in our nation today.  And there was almost unanimous agreement that they are not just different, but at times they appear to be diametrically opposed to one another. 

The version many of us are striving to embrace is the one with roots firmly planted in this season of Lent.  It proclaims a Gospel overflowing with sacrificial love: one that resists violence, one that is willing to surrender power in order to reclaim power; and one that is seeking to stand over and against the religious and political elites of the day, to instead side with the oppressed and the marginalized. It is a version of the Gospel that is most reflective of the life of Jesus, and it is one that has itself, been pushed to the sidelines of America’s Christian landscape.

The other version? . . . well, the other version is all about supremacy, nationalism, and a skewed understanding of greatness that can only stand in direct opposition to the way of Jesus.  It is a vacuous version of the Christian faith; and one that many are fleeing, in spite of the fact that it has become so viciously vocal. It’s leaders dominate the airwaves, and while they claim to speak on behalf of ‘real’ Christians, they speak for no one but themselves, their ‘golden calves’, and the idolatrous empires that they have sought to create.

In her poem, Angelou borrows the image of a caged bird from Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”, and it is an image that would become central to her 1969 autobiography “I know why the caged bird sings.” Today, it continues to offer profound and powerful imagery for anyone seeking to explore the racism that continues to imprison people of color in America. Wings clipped, feet tied, and horrifically restrained behind bars of rage, people of color continue to sing, “with a fearful trill, of things unknown, but longed for still.” Their songs are songs of freedom and liberation; and while free birds spend time seeking to ‘claim the sky’ and ‘name it as our own’, the songs of the caged bird echo throughout our history.

Several of the Black participants in our discussion wondered if we White people have ever actually listened to the songs of America’s ‘caged birds.’ Because while many of us are quick to say ‘of course we have’; it doesn’t seem that way. And for people of color, it doesn’t feel that way. Which is likely why my thoughts immediately went to the movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. For there we see the incredible exploitation of the songs of our Black siblings. And we in the Church have been the most exploitive. For indeed, while we’ve heard the songs, we’ve never really listened.

How many of our congregations have just moved through Black History Month and enjoyed all the religious ‘spirituals’ that come with it? Choirs spent hours preparing “Precious Lord Take my Hand”, soloists crooned the haunting words of “Deep River”, and congregations enthusiastically belted out “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” But did we really listened to the words of these songs? Did we hear the messages being proclaimed? Or were they little more than dignified accoutrements to our religious forms of spiritual entertainment?

Frederick Douglas once said that slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. In other words, caged birds sing because that is all that they are free to do. Their songs are full of grief, pain, longing, anger, and even rage. And for generations, we White people have gathered in auditoriums and concert halls, and done nothing but be entertained by their songs. We wanted Marvin Gaye to sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” but not “What’s Going On?” We wanted Billie Holiday to sing “All of Me”, but not “Strange Fruit.”

So it was a fair question: have we White people ever really listened to the songs of the caged bird? Do we know that we live in a nation of cages? And are we willing to accept responsibility for changing things? Having built the cages, are we praying that God might forgive us. That we might open their doors, are we praying for God to empower us? And for the strength to destroy them, are we praying for God to embolden us? They are important questions for ALL White people, but especially for White people who claim to be following Jesus. And if these are not the questions being appropriate and accurately answered in the version of Christianity that we have embraced, then something is terribly wrong.

In his book “The Color of Compromise”, Jamar Tisby writes that in the early 20th century, as many as 40,000 American pastors were members of the KKK. He tells the story of the lynching of Luther and Mary Holbert in February 1904 . . . “on a Sunday afternoon, after worship, so a large crowd could gather.” Like the songs of the caged bird, lynching too, was a form of entertainment for supposed Christ-followers. After gathering in their solemn religious assemblies – where they remembered a man lynched on a cross . . . by a fearful and powerful mob . . . intent on seeking a flawed form of justice . . . and attempting to silence a message of love and grace for all people – after worshipping the One who created all people, in all of our glorious diversity, members of the Church of Jesus Christ gathered in the town square to lynch again. Men, women, and even children, were hung; and just as in Jesus’ day, it was all in an attempt to maintain a distorted sense of justice, and to silence any attempt to change the oppressive songs of the status quo.

To modify the words of the renown civil rights activist Fred Hampton, “you can cage revolutionaries, but you can’t cage a revolution!” And the version of American Christianity that is preached and promoted today must be revolutionary! We White people must be willing to hear the words of those crying out for justice and righteousness; and our faith must not only include the songs of those who have been ‘caged’ for way too long, but their songs must become our songs. There is no place in our assemblies for songs that in any way promote White supremacy, Christian nationalism, or any notion of greatness that in any way, figuratively or literally, ‘encages’ those who are not like us . . . ‘nasty’ birds, immigrant birds, Black or Brown birds. Any anyone promoting “America first” needs to hear Jesus’ reminder that in God’s coming kindom, “the first will be last and the last will be first!”

Regardless of what we may think we see today, there is only one accurate version of Christianity. And the other is just an imposter – wrapped in the American flag, holding a Bible that has never been read, and exalting a golden calf that should be an affront to anyone claiming to have invited Jesus into their heart.

We White Christ-followers need to listen to the songs of the caged bird. They are songs that have been sung for generations, but too many of us have not been listening. And when we finally hear them, we need to start singing along. We need to add our voices in harmony with theirs; and we need to get to work, so that God’s kindom might indeed come . . . not in a tomorrow understood to be some place in a distant heaven, but rather in this life . . . here . . . and now!


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