Why the caged birds no longer sing

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Dar­riel Har­ris Dar­riel Har­ris is a doc­toral stu­dent at the Johns Hop­kins School of Pub­lic Health; his email is dharr119@jhu.edu.

At a young age, it was ex­plained to me that the caged bird sang be­cause the songs soothed her pain. As I grew, I too turned to mu­sic to soften the blows of life — black life. My songs, hope­ful and cathar­tic, were the balm for an open wound; but they did not free me. And free­dom is what I want. Singing is for those who are bound and un­der­stand that bound is how they may re­main. Black peo­ple in Amer­ica are singing less and less th­ese days.

To­day, blacks are kneel­ing dur­ing na­tional an­thems, block­ing high­ways, shut­ting down po­lit­i­cal ral­lies and re­tail shop­ping cen­ters. And yes, oc­ca­sion­ally we are even ri­ot­ing. Why th­ese meth­ods? Be­cause when you sing in a cage, of­ten it’s only the caged that hear your song. And we’ve sung in cages for so long. We have sung nicely, songs with lyrics ask­ing for civil­ian over­sight com­mit­tees with sub­stan­tial power to re­view po­lice ac­tiv­i­ties. Our caged lyrics have asked for jus­tice — some sort of ac­knowl­edg­ment and ret­ri­bu­tion — when the in­no­cent of our flock are killed. We have sung songs for years, plead­ing for some hu­man to ac­knowl­edge the hu­man­ity in us.

The response to our songs has been min­i­mal. If we are heard at all, we are paci­fied and asked to sing a lit­tle softer. That black guy po­lice killed was “a bad dude” they say. The big, un­armed black man looked de­monic, they say. We killed him be­cause he didn’t com­ply. The of­fi­cer who shot him was black, too. There was no in­jus­tice be­cause the judge who ruled against you was one of your own.

By now we’ve ob­served that a sys­tem de­signed to cage us will do so even if the keeper is our kin. What must we do to be heard? What song must we sing to move you? Is it even pos­si­ble for us to sing your rhythms?

The Bi­ble tells us that Is­raelites hung up their harps after continued taunt­ing by their op­pres­sors de­mand­ing that they sing. Fa­tigued and heart­bro­ken, they re­but­ted, “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a for­eign land?” After singing for so long, for­eign is how many blacks cit­i­zens feel.

Con­se­quently, for many blacks the response to­day has be­come: We won’t sing — we can’t sing — any longer. We are stop­ping our songs be­cause our voices can­not muster an­other fu­neral dirge; those melodies have made our ears ache through con­stant rep­e­ti­tion. We are ex­hausted by the singing, and jus­tice de­ferred has made our hearts sick.

The word used to de­scribe those birds who stopped singing and set fire to a Char­lotte high­way was the same word used to de­scribe Bal­ti­more chil­dren who threw rocks at the men­ac­ing, cor­ralling po­lice who can legally mur­der them: “thugs.” I gasped when I heard the term but ex­haled when I re­mem­bered that those re­bel­lious 1773 Bos­to­ni­ans who poured out large amounts of tea were deemed “ruf­fi­ans.” Such action in the face of im­pro­pri­ety is in our coun­try’s foun­da­tion.

Non­vi­o­lent protest was in­tro­duced to Amer­ica by black stu­dents and clergy ap­peal­ing to the bet­ter an­gels of a coun­try that caged in­no­cent cit­i­zens while al­low­ing its demons to roam free. I salute and en­cour­age the meth­ods of those non­vi­o­lent birds of the civil rights era who sang through the locks of their doors, but I un­der­stand the con­tem­po­rary black­birds who have de­cided it best to sing a lit­tle less, and act out a lit­tle more. It’s the Amer­i­can thing to do.

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