’s Sympathty Essay, Research Paper

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the black population was enslaved and tortured by whites. African Americans were treated as animals, denied the right to life, forced to work endlessly, and suffer abuse from their masters. White Americans forced the blacks to become slaves due to the fact that whites possessed all of the power and wealth in that time. Dunbar?s ?Sympathy? suggests to the reader a comparison between the lifestyle of a caged bird, and the African Americans of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Dunbar uses repetition, symbolism, vivid language to relay his comparison throughout the poem. Ironically, the life of a caged bird is indeed the life of the African American. An African American, like the caged bird, was forced to live in captivity and please others on command.

Dunbar begins with ?I know what the caged bird feels, alas?(1). This suggests to the reader that the slaves understand the life of a caged bird. Also, Dunbar uses this to emphasize his point that someone trapped by bondage is not fortunate enough to enjoy the pleasures and feelings of independence that lies within freedom. When one thinks of a bird, they may be reminded of their delicateness and the vast freedom of movement in which they are given by their wings. Caged birds are prisoners of their own environment. A caged bird is not allowed to use its natural ability to fly, explore and live freely. Instead, the caged bird is forced to remain on ?his perch and cling?(10). Slaves were not free to roam their environment, kept under constant watch, living with the fear of being beaten, killed, or lynched.

Dunbar writes about the beauty of nature in the first stanza, ?When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows the a stream of glass;

When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—–(2-6)

Dunbar seems to be relating the caged bird?s sadness that stem from not being allowed to enjoy the mysterious wonders of nature. An oppressed slave will never enjoy the freedom of stealing a whiff of perfume that flowers give off. Many unoppressed people, not necessarily minorities, take these small things for granted.

The second stanza begins with ?I know why the caged bird beats his wing, Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;?(8,9). The speaker understands why the caged bird fights both physically and emotionally to be set free. The caged bird is willing to inflict pain unto itself in order to break the bars that surround his prison. Once the bird realizes that his futile efforts are hopeless he then ?fly back to his perch and cling?(10). The bird would much rather be happily swinging on a high branch in the trees (bough-a-swing). The African Americans experienced this same kind of pain in their long battle for freedom. Furthermore, lynching and beating were common consequences for slaves that tried to escape. Lynches were made into a public display, the same way a caged bird is kept in the open for all to see.

Generation after generation enslaved Africans were unable to celebrate freedom, however, their battle never stopped. Dunbar exemplifies this in lines (12-13) ? And the pain still throbs in the old, old, scars, And they pulse again with a keener sting—? Both the bird and slaves desire for freedom never died down, only grew stronger and more relentless.

?I know why the caged bird sings, ah me?, begins the third stanza of ?Sympathy?. Singing for the most part is thought to be a mean of happiness and contentment. On the other hand, singing can be born out of misery such as we see in the history of African American song, singing for the slaves was for this reason. Slaves sang to express their unhappiness and to express their tales of woe. Their music acted as a lifeline, one of their last rays of hope to keep their culture alive. Slaves were able to express their emotions in song without receiving severe punishment. Dunbar refers to this singing the last stanza of ?Sympathy? and compares it with why the cage bird sings. Dunbar writes that the caged bird sings ?not a carol of joy or glee, but a prayer that he sends from his heart?s deep core, but a plea upward Heaven he flings.?(18-20). Therefore, singing is a plea for help and freedom for the blacks and the caged bird. Slaves sang not out for joy, but to drown out their sorrow. Singing kept the slaves burning desires for freedom strong, and helped keep the ties among slaves strong.

Dunbar?s ?Sympathy? evokes compassion in the reading by comparing the image of a caged bird to the trapped life of a slave. Generations of slaves never had the opportunity to taste the freedoms of America. The reader finishes the poem feeling a great sense of sympathy towards the delicate birds, however, the bird is indeed the perfect comparison to the life of an African slave.


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