“I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings”

The quilt created by Gail Irish, and inspired by resilience and strength of others.
Created by Gail Irish, the quilt’s inspiration was the resilience and strength of others.

Each year, the quilt club I belong to sets a theme for the quilts we create for our annual exhibit at Glad Creations, Inc., a Minneapolis quilt shop. “Stripes” was the subject for our Winter 2014 projects.

At about that time, Cece McDonald, a transgender African-American woman who used deadly force to protect herself during a brutal transphobic and racist assault in Minneapolis, was released from prison after serving 19 months of a 41-month sentence. When she took a plea to avoid potential murder convictions and possibly 80 years in prison, she was freed. Through her story, I learned about the disproportionate numbers of transgender people of color in prison, not to mention the prison population’s disproportionate numbers in general of people of color.

Then, when the world lost Maya Angelou, I was reminded once again how her poem “I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings” uses the image of a caged bird as a metaphor to tell the story of Angelou’s struggle to escape oppression of racism and sexism.

In my volunteer work at The Advocates for Human Rights, I meet refugees seeking asylum in the United States because they fear persecution and death if they return to their home countries. Many of them spent time in prisons under deplorable conditions in their countries of origin.

In my work teaching English to adult immigrants and refugees, students have told me stories about unlawful detention, torture, isolation, long separation from loved ones, and many other hardships.

What stands out for me through all of this is the resilience and strength that allow these individuals to fight for survival and dignity.

With my students, the refugees with whom I work, McDonald, and Angelou as inspirations, I imagined bars on windows for the quilt theme of “stripes.” I chose a traditional pattern called Attic Windows, and used a striped fabric for the windows. While all of the windows have bars, the sun is shining brightly.

Some of us are in cages of our own making. Others are in cages that result from the many inequities in our society. My hope is for greater compassion and a greater understanding of the issues and realities that put people behind bars, and more humane treatment of those who remain there.

By: Gail Irish, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights

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