The caged bird sings
There was a time when my sisters and I performed as an ensemble, singing gospel choruses on the makeshift platforms of my father’s Pentecostal revival meetings. We were the warmup act for his fiery sermons.
But there came a day, back in the early 1960s, when I lost my singing voice.
We were performing with the church choir that morning, a swirl of beribboned braids and Easter dresses, making a joyful noise together in the sun-splashed sanctuary of Everybody’s Tabernacle.
A black woman approached the platform where I stood, eyes twinkling under the netting of her pillbox hat. She reached for my hand. I nodded. She led me down the steps and into the crowd of worshippers, white-gloved fingers laced through mine. We “sang in the spirit together”–spinning like kaleidoscopes under the stained glass windows, prisms of color at our feet.
My feet blistered inside my hand-me-down shoes, but I didn’t feel a thing…until my mother reached into the aisle where I was dancing, pinched my arm and yanked me backward into her pew.
“Stop acting like a jungle bunny,” she hissed.
My throat tightened. In my mother’s disapproving eyes, I saw flashes of something dangerous. I’d seen it before, casting its shadow over the water fountains in Mississippi. I’d felt its looming presence, commandeering the lunch counter at a department store in Alabama. I recognized, but couldn’t yet name the familiar glare—directed now toward the good-hearted folks that opened their homes to our itinerant family, filling our empty bellies with casseroles and latticed pies, stocking our pantry with canned vegetables and fruits, and outfitting us with winter coats, more suitable for Baltimore snowstorms than the thin cotton sweaters we brought from California.
I couldn’t catch my breath, couldn’t sing another note. The lyrics swirled through my head, but the melody was spirited away to a secret hiding place, where love doesn’t pinch, and joy flies on iridescent wings through an impossibly blue sky.
At almost five years old, I couldn’t find the words to describe how I was feeling. But years later, I stumbled on a passage written by Rumi, who somehow got it right:
“The feelings trembled and flapped in [my] chest like a bird newly put in a cage.”
I’d long-since rejected the ugliness my mother spewed that day. And yet…the music was still locked inside me. I enrolled in choir classes and paid for private lessons. But despite all that throat-clearing, I rarely sang loud enough for anyone else to hear. I wouldn’t let loose in the car, not even with the windows rolled. I didn’t sing in the shower, even when I was home alone. I even bought myself a tambourine–but I couldn’t find the backbeat, and the clanging cymbals sounded more clanking chains.
But here’s the thing: When we step into that liminal space that falls between our comfort zone and wildest dreams, miracles sometimes happen. And if we keep our eyes and ears wide open, we might get brief glimpses of that.
Our plane was grounded by a snowstorm, so we rebooked on another airline. I couldn’t believe my ears: the Harlem Gospel Choir was clustered at our new boarding gate, singing gospel music. I reveled in this serendipitous encounter (read: went all fan girl on them).
Someday, I promised myself, I’ll sing like that again. I might’ve even told Anna Bailey, their manager, about my dream to one day sing with a gospel choir again.
Two years later, as luck or fate would have it, I saw this posting on my Facebook feed:
Say amen, somebody. Carpe diem, Melodye.
I’m not saying it’ll be easy. I’m not claiming a full-on healing. But guess where I’m headed on this sun-splashed February morning?
I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free...
It’s impossible to describe for you the joy that came of enrolling in that Escondido workshop. I still get teary-eyed when I remember the “caged bird” who flinched at the very thought of singing out loud, even in private. I watched the choir perform, bodies swaying as they sang. I sang a few, raspy notes–under my breath, so no one could hear me. Eventually, though, and with lots of encouragement, I stood trembling at the mic, rehearsing a song for our evening performance. Was I stiff? No question. Pitch perfect? Probably not. But I kept telling myself: At least I’m trying.
No one else knew the depths of my anxiety, except for the choir members with whom I shared my story over dinner. I talked about how silly I sometimes felt, constrained after all these years by something that happened to me as a very young girl. I confessed, with a sheepish smile, that after hearing them sing in the JFK terminal, I’d written “Sing onstage with the Harlem Gospel choir” at the very top of my bucket list.
I sat with the workshop buddies, felt an old stirring as I watched them perform in concert. I think, in hindsight, that it was the warmup for the magic that followed.
After an intermission, the lead singer stood at center stage, shielding her eyes from the glare of the spotlight. “Where’s Melodye?” Kiaama Hudson asked. I pivoted in my seat, scanned the auditorium. There were hundreds of people in the audience–surely, she was looking for someone else?
But no. Eyes twinkling, Kiaama fixed her gaze on me. “Come on, girl,” she said, as she waved me toward the stage.
I slow-walked to the front of the auditorium, felt everyone’s eyes on me as I climbed the platform stairs.
She took my hand in hers, and led me toward the microphone. “This is on your bucket list, am I right?” she asked me. “Singing with us onstage?”
I nodded, at once petrified and excited. It’d been a long time coming, but change was gonna come.
Kiaama stood tall and proud at the microphone: chin lifted.
I straightened my shoulders, took several deep breaths.
We sang a few practice riffs. My voice was tentative; hers was rich, full, and sweet.
But when she laced her fingers in mine, I felt a familiar stirring.
Kiama radiated love from the depths of her being, and Oh, Happy Day, I was standing next to her, letting my little light shine.
When the final grace note dissolved into silence, Kiaasha said, right there in front of God and everybody, “We’ve been friends for a while now. But you know…once you’ve sung with our choir, we’re no longer just friends. We’re family, for life.”
The choir surrounded me–a group hug that felt like sunshine, and sparkly effervescence. It was one of the most authentic expressions of acceptance that I’ve ever experienced, with reverberations in the rest of my life that I’d be hard-pressed to explain.
“Sing from your heart,” HGC manager Anne Bailey told us in the workshop, earlier that day.
Which, of course, is where I found my voice, hidden all this time under layers of protection. I’m setting it free again, slowly but surely, now that the lock is finally broken.
(*Updated to include my workshop experience and my mother’s actual words.)