But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
– Maya Angelou
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night just to touch him, to lay my hand on him and whisper a little prayer. I am reminded of all the families who prayed over children who never returned again. You just never know.
Prayer can seem like all we can do for young people that look like my son. Imani Perry, in her letter to her sons entitled Breathe, lamented, “There are fingers itching to have a reason to cage or even slaughter you. My God, what hate for beauty this world breeds.”
I know the feeling. Just last summer, during a run, an older white man started taking pictures of me and telling me that I “didn’t belong here.” On the walk home, I stopped, bowed my head, and cried. These were not tears of weakness. I cried because I felt what many of those who looked like me have felt: the tragedy of blackness in an unloving world. My tears were my song, with a “fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still.”
When I arrived home, I told myself: You are black. You are known. You are loved. You must survive. I understand the caged bird a little better now. In its weakness, he opens up his throat still. The caged bird must sing.
Here, then, is the dilemma, and it is a puzzling one, I admit. No Negro who has given earnest thought to the situation of his people in America has failed, at some time in life, to find himself at these crossroads; has failed to ask himself at some time, “What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both?” —W. E. B. Du Bois
All of my work since…has involved an effort to relate the gospel and the black experience—the experience of oppression as well as the struggle to find liberation and meaning. —James Cone
I have thought about Angelou’s poem since that day. How do we sing in a world where we are bound? It is the question that I have had to navigate amid anger, loss, loneliness, and a world in which those who look like me are not given the benefit of humanity. It is the crossroads at which Du Bois found himself wondering, “What after all, am I?” What after all, our pain? What after all, our meaning?
Our history cries out: cries of little babies torn from their homeland; of mothers and fathers jumping overboard to escape from hell; of bruised and abused bodies; of broken promises and policies; of beautiful children lifeless in the streets and over social media.
I have come to see that theological reflection often begins at the place of tears and pain. It is in this place that black people have had to struggle. It is here that we have had the audacity to survive, to sing. And we in America today can’t understand this song without understanding the brilliance of black theology. I wouldn’t be able to make it in this cruel world without it.
Since its emergence in the 1960s, black theology has tried to respond to the cries of its people. J. Deotis Roberts, a pioneering black theologian, spoke of this struggle. He was attending a meeting at Duke University where Jürgen Moltmann, the German theologian, presented a paper on his theology of hope on the same night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The next morning, Roberts stopped Moltmann and asked what his theology had to say to black people in America. Moltmann admitted he had no answers. It was then, Roberts writes, “that the seed of ‘black theology’ began to germinate in my own mind.”
As it was for Roberts, so it was for James Cone, whom many would deem the “father of black theology.” Much of theological reflection had failed black people by not focusing its theological interpretation on the experience of black life in America. But both Cone and Roberts, James Evans writes, “suggest that the radical critique of American racism inherent in the black power movement is the source of contemporary black theology and prophetic black Christianity.”
These theologians embodied the good news of the gospel bound to the black voice. As they strained, they dreamed for themselves and for us today of “things unknown but longed for still.” Not content to leave the task of theology in the past, they continued to reflect deeply on the meaning of Christianity for black people today.
Refusing to concede Christianity to its white abusers, or the rejections of various movements within the black freedom struggle, they “based their legitimacy on the fact that African American Christianity was the result of the encounter of black people with the liberating essence of the gospel,” wrote Evans in We Have Been Believers: An African American Systematic Theology.
This theological reflection, he said, is “central to the ongoing life of the African American church.” The very resistance, the straining to fix one’s throat to sing, was evidence that these caged birds still had life. One could hear this singing in the womanist moral and religious reflection of black women or the recent movement for black liberation and love in the context of Black Lives Matter. This singing can still be heard in the voice of black folk in all types of Christian traditions. We refuse to allow the story of our pain, our resilience, and resistance to be forgotten.
As Miroslav Volf writes about remembering rightly in a violent world, “To remember a wrongdoing is to struggle against it.” To be black and to be Christian is to remember the brutality of our experience and the brilliance of our resistance. It is to remember, as Cone writes, “God’s message of liberation in an unredeemed and tortured world.”
We remember so we must struggle. We’re still here.
But there is one who does not forget—Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ of God. He does not forget poor, dark, despised bodies. —M. Shawn Copeland
We should ask God to increase our hope when it is small, awaken it when it is dormant, confirm it when it is wavering, strengthen it when it is weak, and raise it up when it is overthrown. —John Calvin
One of the greatest gifts of black theology is the hope of freedom. It keeps us going. The brilliant scholars of black theology, our prophetic poets, embodied the slogan “black is beautiful” in contrast to a world of oppression, dehumanization, negative stereotypes, and destructive policies. They modeled the freedom of the black mind to tell our own stories, to proclaim the good news of love, and to see the story of God in the black experience.
Black people have embodied the revolutionary power of the gospel of Jesus—and yet, in many ways, we are still bound, our feet are still tied, our wings still clipped. What do we do as we stand on the grave of dreams, seeing through our bars of rage?
This is the question before those called to bear witness to the liberating beauty of the gospel in a world that constantly pushes people to the margins. It is quite easy to ignore when your wings work just fine, when your song is not in a strange land but in the realm of the familiar. Black theology in its reflection of the living memory of Jesus and its praxis of solidarity tunes our ears to that voice.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, “we have once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short from the perspective of those who suffer.”
And Lord knows black people have suffered while interpreting Jesus in the soil of racism, oppression, and the psychological damage of trauma. From below, we remember loss—of land and place, power, and people. From below, we witness. From below, we have created a hope that the world in all its cruelty could not crush.
From below, we invite the church to learn the ways of the penniless preacher out of the poor side of Nazareth and, as Cone writes, to fulfill its task of preaching and living the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ in the world today.
The question remains: What do we do?
We sing. We refuse to succumb to the cruelty of the world. We refuse to ignore the pain and cries of those who suffer. We refuse to not be moved. We refuse to give up hope.
See, black theologians have had to do this in the worst of times. We are still struggling with what Eddie Glaude, an expert in African American religious history at Princeton University, calls the value gap. These are the structural practices in America, and even in the church, that reflect the belief that black minds, lives, and communities are less valuable than others. Having to survive and thrive while also bearing the deep wounds of tragedy and trauma will teach you about hope not just as a concept but as a testimony and discipline.
It teaches you that you must hold on—to Jesus and to one another. Hold on when you’re tired and don’t feel like holding. Hold on when your throat is dry, your wings are clipped, and your feet are tied. Hold on to your song.
Cornel West was right to say that black theologians play a critical role in being Christian today. Their reflection “begins by negating white interpretations of the gospel, continues by preserving their own perceived truths of the biblical texts, and ends by transforming past understandings of the gospel into new ones.” These theologians have long promoted “a gospel that empowers black people to survive and struggle in a God-forsaken world.” At the heart of this good news is the fact that Jesus doesn’t simply come down but also comes with. He is the divine deliverer who is also “a human exemplar of pain and agony.”
And pain and agony are stepping stones to freedom. Liberation and resurrection are the unbreakable cords of hope. On the other side of the darkness of Friday, the silence of Saturday, is the good news that on Sunday, freedom is coming.
It’s like the freedom of the body bound to slavery that Baby Suggs speaks when she preaches in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Here in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass.” It’s the taste of liberation that the spirituals speak of when they sing, “Freedom, oh freedom / Oh freedom ova me!” even though freedom is at a distance.
As long as we have this body that God has given us, this theology, we have life, we have strength, we have hope, we have freedom.
We must flesh. We must weep. We must laugh. We must play.
We must hope against hope. We must live. We must love. We must be free.
The bird knows there is One who does not forget. The caged bird must still sing.
Danté Stewart is a writer and preacher currently studying at the Reformed Theological Seminary. His previous pieces for CT include “ Why We Still Prophesy Hope ” and “ Martin Luther King Jr.: Exemplar of Hope.”
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