The caged bird sings to revoke control over his circumstances, to negate the power of his oppressor, and to reaffirm his existence despite attempts to strip him of his autonomy.
Henry Reed’s valedictory speech “To Be or Not to Be” exemplifies the singing of the caged bird, and his leading the graduates and audience in a rendition of “The Negro National Anthem” pushed back the bars of the cage and renewed the independence of the audience, his classmates, and himself.Edward Donleavy had opened his mouth and condemned Lafayette County Training School’s 1940 graduating class to nothing more than feats of servitude and athleticism: “the white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises” (Angelou, 1969, p. 37). Fortunately, Henry Reed did not fall under the white man’s spell. Instead, he looked past the cage that had crashed down around him and acknowledged his desire “to Be.
” Countering Donleavy’s words with his own restored order to the graduation ceremony and negated the power of the man who had inadvertently put the graduates and their family members into their proper, oppressed places.Having firmly established that there still was a reason “to Be,” Henry Reed moves from his speech to leading everyone in song, and as “The Negro National Anthem” is sung, the power, strength, and hope return. Those who had been put down rose again, and for some, like Marguerite Johnson (i.e.
Maya Angelou), they felt the joy of real freedom for the first time and “[were] no longer simply [. . .] member[s] of the graduating class of 1940 [, but .
. .] proud member[s] of the wonderful, beautiful, Negro race” (Angelou, 1969, p. 40).Simply put, the caged bird sings because it is in doing so that no one and nothing can deny his existence.