Paul Laurence Dunbar, who graduated high school just before the turn of the twentieth century certainly encountered barriers to his creative expression when he began his career as a writer. Because of the assistance of a classmate, Orville Wright, he had a volume of poems which included "Sympathy" in it published in 1893. However, Dunbar soon learned that the poems that were preferred by the white readers were ones that reinforced the stereotypes of contented blacks living in harmony on Southern plantations.
Ironically, his poem "Sympathy" contained in his early volume became a metaphor for Dunbar's own condition as his own creativity was "caged" by the bias of his readers. His "song" of inner expression was not received because readers preferred the dialect of the ignorant, but contented slave. And, so, Dunbar came to know in reality "why the caged bird sings." Like the little bird who is caged, Dunbar was confined by the prejudices and demands of the readers. Expressing this repression, Dunbar's speaker says,
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!
With his psyche and spirit "bruised" by the pettiness of the public who reads his poetry, Dunbar, like the bird who is a metaphor for the speaker's spirit, yet "beats the bars" of the restrictions imposed upon his creativity, namely,"his wing." He is a poet "who would be free" to express himself as he feels he must, but is confined--"caged"--in his expression by the social dynamics of his times. Indeed, it is evident that there are close parallels between the physical state of the bird of Dunbar's poem and the psychological state of the poet himself.