I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, —
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), one of the most notable American poets of the late 19th Century, was the son of former Kentucky slaves. His father, after escaping from slavery, served in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War. His mother, who supported the family by working as a washerwoman, loved poetry and encouraged her children’s education. At Dayton High School in Ohio, where he was the only African-American student, Paul Dunbar distinguished himself as a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper, and president of the school’s literary society. A superb writer, Dunbar authored 12 books of poetry, 4 collections of short stories, a play, and 5 novels before he died at the age of 33.