“Caged Bird / Free Bird”

Sermon by Jolie Olivetti  –  November 29, 2015

Opening Words

“Beginners” by Denise Levertov

But we have only begun
To love the earth.

We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
— so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
— we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.


From Blessing the World by Rev Rebecca Parker

In 1976 I began a cross-country road trip with a friend on my way to seminary. We had time, so we decided to take back roads. One afternoon, the road passed through rural western Pennsylvania. Late in the day, we came down through hill country into a valley. It had been raining hard, and as we neared a small town, we noticed blinking yellow lights warning of danger. We saw fields covered in standing water and passed several side roads blocked off with signs saying Road Closed.

“Looks like they’ve had a flood here,” we said. Coming into town, we crossed a bridge over a wide river. The water was high, muddy, flowing fast. Sandbags lined the roadway. “Gosh,” we said, “they must have had quite a bit of high water to contend with here. Looks like it was a major flood!”

We headed out of town, following a winding country road, captivated by the evidence all around us that there had been a dramatic flood. Then we rounded a bend and in front of us, a sheet of water covered the roadway. The water was rising fast, like a huge silver balloon being inflated before our eyes.

We started to turn the car around. The water was rising behind us as well. Suddenly we realized the flood hadn’t happened yesterday or last week. It was happening here and now. Dry ground was disappearing fast. We hurriedly clambered out of the car and scrambled to higher ground. Soaked to the bone, we huddled under a fir tree. The cold water of the storm poured down on us, baptizing us into the present – a present from which we had been insulated by both our car and our misjudgments about the country we were travelling through.

Caged Bird by Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
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.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

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.
“Caged Bird / Free Bird”

Sermon by Jolie Olivetti

We’ve been talking about race at First Parish Watertown recently. Some people read Waking Up White, some people went to hear the author Debby Irving speak with Shay Stewart-Bouley, some people came to a workshop last week about racism. And though I promise we didn’t plan it this way, Rev Susan Chorley preached a little over a month ago about the UU Urban Ministry grappling with its identity as a primarily white organization seeking to do good work in a primarily Black neighborhood. And there’s been a larger conversation going on about race as well.

It’s been over a year since protests erupted in Ferguson over the murder of Mike Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, and the chant Black Lives Matter has been heard non-stop across the country since. Also, devastatingly, just as Mike Brown wasn’t the first, Black people have continued being killed at the hands of the police. And the people cry out for it to stop! So I’m asking what can my role be, a white person, in the Black Lives Matter movement?

The first time I heard the poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou my heart ached for that bird in a cage, but when I heard those verses about the free bird, I thought, well, it’s just good to be free. But this is a poem whose every word must have been chosen so carefully
by none other than Maya Angelou, a consummate artist, a craftsperson with words.
So after looking at it a few times, I realize that the free bird is not just a foil to the caged bird. I came to this realization by lingering on the free bird, line by line. And if you’ll permit me, I’d like to do that with you now. In the first verse, he’s leaping on the wind and admiring the sunset, that nice, totally understandable. And then he dares to claim the sky. That’s some hubris, little birdie! Later, the free bird is thinking of the trade winds soft through the sighing trees. That’s not just any breeze. When I remember who Maya Angelou was, a freedom fighter of monumental significance, who wrote about racism and her identity as a Black woman in America, then I hear “trade winds” as a reference to the trade routes that brought people as slaves to the Caribbean from West Africa. This bird is thinking about the winds of the slave trade. And if that’s the particular wind this free bird is cogitating on, then those trees in the poem make me think of lynching trees. These are violent, evil parts of American history. It is awful to remember these terrors, worse to forget them.

This free bird then fantasizes about a glimmering expanse of land covered in fat worms and, finally, the last we know of him is when he again names the sky his own. Who is this bird? Dreaming of the winds that powered the merchant ships, thinking about the trees that bore Strange Fruit, manifesting destiny all across the fat-wormed-lawn, and claiming the very sky? What’s more, the free bird doesn’t give a single thought to his brother, the bird who’s been clipped and tied and caged in rage. The free bird doesn’t so much as tip his wing to the caged bird. He just goes on flying and claiming.
I am a white person from a middle-class upbringing. I’ve never been arrested or imprisoned. I’m not targeted by the police. I am neither the descendant of American slaves nor did my ancestors fear lynching in this country. My Jewish forbears were able – thank God – to obtain passage out of Europe in the 1930s. The point is not to feel guilty about any of this. I am listing some of the ways I am unencumbered by the direct impact of racism because this poem, “Caged Bird” has a message for me, because I am like the free bird. Yes, whether I realize it or not, whether I like it or not, I am like the free bird in a country that has enslaved and lynched generations of caged birds. So if not to feel guilty or to beat myself up, Why face race as a white person? Why own up to these hard truths?

As most of you know, I used to manage a farm in Dorchester. As hard as it is to admit this, when I first started working there, I was startled to realize that there was a community of people living their whole lives in that neighborhood. I had spent some time in poor and working-class neighborhoods of color before, but what was different when I was a farmer was the amount of time I was around. Day after day, I was in the gardens on Fabyan Street, a residential block off Blue Hill Ave, close to Mattapan. We got to know each other, the neighbors and I. We’d swap planting tips and we’d complain about the weather or gossip about who got towed for street cleaning. If I was spraying some organic pest treatment on my greens, I’d walk next door, and get Mr Butcher’s greens as well. As I met people’s kids and grandkids, participated in the shifting seasons from snowplows to ice cream trucks, my perspective of Dorchester changed. Before spending this everyday time with people living their everyday lives, I thought it was a neighborhood in perpetual crisis, with little life and much danger. So I was there as a dutiful privileged person, at work to save people, one bunch of carrots at a time.

The absurdity and arrogance of that became clear as I realized Fabyan Street was just a street, with regular people. Despite what the news and other sources of messages about our cities may have told me my whole life, Dorchester is just a place where people live. I’m not talking about ignoring the fact that I’m white and the residents of Fabyan Street are people of color. I’m not talking about pretending that race and racism don’t exist. What I’m talking about is the realization – strange and disturbing as it was that I had to realize this – that these are all people living full and rich lives. And I learned that my job as an urban farmer meant that we were just neighbors, partners in our shared efforts to grow good food and good lives, despite toxic soil and systemic injustices, on Fabyan St.

My initial misconceptions about my role in Dorchester could be called “white savior complex-” in which we whites think we’re best suited to rush in and save people of color. This is different from the free bird’s complex – cold-hearted apathy in the face of his brother’s pain and the evil systems that keep him caged. But there are some similarities. Both instances fundamentally deny the sacred worth of Black and Brown people.

Consciously or subconsciously – When the free bird ignores the plight of the caged bird
And when I thought Fabyan St was helpless without me – Neither of us is respecting
the inherent worth and dignity of human beings on the front lines of oppression.
Failing to acknowledge our fellow beings who are suffering, and failing to acknowledge their efforts to ensure their own flourishing, both deny people’s autonomy and dignity.

And the way whiteness works may mean that we whites are oblivious to all of this.

We heard about this oblivion in Rebecca Parker’s story. She tells of how she and her friend drove through the rain and commented on what may have been wrong out there, before they figured out they had get out of the car or else drown. Right after relating that story she says the following: This is what it is like to be white in America. It is to travel well ensconced in a secure vehicle, to see signs of what is happening in the world outside your compartment and not to realize that these signs have any contemporary meaning. It is to misjudge your location and believe you are uninvolved and unaffected by what is happening in the world.

Waking up to whiteness means we have to realize that we are personally implicated, we have been written into this story of race whether we like it or not. And we might be cluelessly gazing out our car windows at the devastation all around us. It’s like the first time I read the poem Caged Bird, I didn’t notice that in his ignorance and apathy, the free bird was a party to keeping his sister caged. It’s like when I first began working in Dorchester, and I didn’t realize that since I had swallowed the stories about the city, I didn’t recognize the humanity present in that neighborhood.

Rebecca Parker says, “when I speak of the ignorance created by my education into whiteness, I am speaking of a loss of wholeness within myself and a corresponding segregation of culture that debilitates life for all of us.” She goes on to say, “Now that I recognize it, this loss disturbs me deeply. It is precisely this loss that makes me a suitable, passive participant in structures that I abhor.”

So what can I do about this? I can try to rid myself of this oblivion. I can, like Reverend Rebecca Parker and unlike the “free bird,” wake up to my whiteness, and begin to listen to and learn from people of color. I can reject the power that comes to me at other people’s expense. I can invite other white people along on this journey.

If you heard my sermon in early October maybe you remember how I shifted from despairing in the greediness and unreliability of my fellow humans to finding a wellspring of faith in humanity. This faith in humanity includes an enduring belief that we can end our reliance upon structures we abhor, this faith in humanity includes a love of the wholeness that can follow waking up to whiteness.

Now I know my call to ministry will be larger than this, and will shift and grow as I learn more from you all in our two year journey together. But if you think of my call as a song, a song that I am learning to sing as I hear it, this is one verse. In this verse I sing about Unitarian Universalism as a resource to lovingly root the hidden, sneaky white supremacy out of myself and others. I started to hear this song when I was working in Dorchester, a beautiful ode to the people of that neighborhood, a healing hymn that sang the truth over the dehumanizing lies I had previously known. And I need to try to make this song harmonize with the larger movement for racial justice, which leads me back to Maya Angelou.

Her poem tells us about two types of freedom: The freedom of the free bird, and the freedom in the song of the caged bird. Is the freedom that the free bird inhabitsthe same as the freedom that rings on the distant hill when the caged bird sings? Is that distant hill where freedom rings the same place as the land of ignoring cages, claiming the sky, and gliding on trade winds? No. The free bird’s is a false freedom. The song of the caged bird is of true freedom.
Black Lives Matter was created by Black women activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in the wake of Treyvon Martin’s murder in 2012. The insistence that Black Lives Matter is a necessary reminder in a society that imperils, devalues, and cages Black lives. The freedom song of the caged bird could include the chants of the Black Lives Matter movement. My so-called freedom is hollow until there are no more cages.

That is what the caged bird sings of. No More Cages.

As the bird out of the cage, I need to listen to the caged bird’s song. When I come to understand that my humanity is caught up in the humanity of others, and that my whiteness has prevented me from knowing this fully, then I can join in that song,
I can join in the work for true freedom.

Closing Words

From Blessing the World by Rebecca Parker

I have been given the gift of life but I have not yet fully claimed it. I struggle neither as a benevolent act of social concern nor as a repentant act of shame and guilt, but as an act of passion for life, of insistence on life. I am fueled by both love for life and anger in the face of the violence that divides us from each other and from ourselves.

I step out of an insular shell and come into immediate contact with the full texture of our present reality. I feel the rain on my face and breathe the fresh air. I wade in the waters that spirit has troubled and stirred. The water drenching me baptizes me into a new life. I become a citizen not of somewhere else but of here. The struggle for racial justice in America calls all white people to make this journey. Our presence is needed; we have been absent too long.