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.”