Friday, September 19, 2008

Caged Birds and Songs They Sing

Thinking of cages as this day goes on.

Specifically, of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical statement about why the caged bird sings. From the moment I first read Angelou’s memoir, I fell in love with it, and with her metaphor of social stigmatization and marginalization as a caging of the human spirit.

As a gay man, I understand a bit about what it means to be placed in a cage. Because I also challenge myself continuously to understand and push against the social tendency to place people in cages solely because of innate characteristics such as skin color, gender, or sexual orientation, I find a place inside myself where I can form solidarity with others who are placed in cages for reasons different from my reason for being caged.

I believe—and I know from my own experience—that it is possible for us to project our hearts, minds, and souls into the experience of others, not so that we completely understand the unique experience of others, but so that we can empathize. And in empathizing, begin the process of assisting others to break their cage bars. Because we ourselves know how painful it feels to be shut into a cage against our will.

Because I believe in the possibility of such solidarity of heart, mind, and soul with the caged Other, I find it difficult to understand those who have every reason to know what it feels like to be unjustly caged, but who find it impossible to muster solidarity with Others different from themselves.

When I encounter, for instance, African Americans and/or women who do not intend to make solidarity with gay-lesbian persons, I am baffled. I can never fully understand what it means to live life in the skin of someone who is African American, or in the body of someone who is female. It would be pretentious and false for me to claim that I do understand those experiences, or the particular kind of marginalization people of color and women endure.

Nonetheless, I have the ability to understand in my heart, mind, and soul what being put in a cage against one’s will feels like. And that ability compels me to do everything in my power to open the cages of those unjustly imprisoned due to innate traits over which they have no control.

People shut up in tight little prisons; people treated as if they do not have intellect and capability to feel deeply when their dignity is assaulted; people lied to and lied about solely because of their denigrated innate characteristics; people lied to cynically as though they cannot discern a lie from the truth; people susceptible to manifold forms of social violence because of how they were born; people against whom others use the law as a tool of oppression rather than a tool to effect justice: these people know what it feels like to want out of the cage.

And because they know, because their own souls have been seared by the injustice of being treated as non-persons, they commit themselves to the liberation of others from cages. That is, they do so if they do not want to diminish their own humanity.

Because in the final analysis, when we blame others for finding themselves unjustly imprisoned in tiny cages, and when we cruelly use their own attempts to batter down the cage bars as justification for keeping them caged, it is ourselves we diminish.

Not the one we’re trying to keep in a cage. Those folks usually know in their souls that their humanity is the same kind of humanity everyone else shares. And even in prison, even as caged birds, they can still sing to assert their humanity against the bars of their cages.

And, of course, given even the slightest chance, they fly out of the cage the moment the door springs open.