Your heart is in the right place, PETA, but you do know the book wasn’t actually about birds, right?
You may have heard that the childhood home of Maya Angelou, legendary writer of (among many others) I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, recently went on the market.
PETA, the controversial but nevertheless influential animal rights organization, has some ideas about how to best utilize the property. The group’s plans were outlined to the home’s real estate agent, Tyler Olsen, in a letter that takes the Caged Bird part literally.
According to the letter, Angelou’s home would be converted into an "empathy museum" for birds caged as pets, who may become neurotic and mutilate themselves in confinement.
“Our empathy museum will remind visitors that a life in captivity is frequently a death sentence for caged birds and other animals exploited by circuses, zoos, and other such attractions,” writes Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA.
Newkirk cites Angelou’s memoir, which details her experience overcoming racism and adversity during her childhood, as inspiration for the museum. The proposed museum speaks to Angelou’s message: “No one can be free until everyone is free.”
However, the book has less to do with the literal confinement of birds than it does with a young woman’s resistance to trauma and prejudice. In it, her strength of character and mind kept her soul from being caged. Whether birds even have souls is another debate entirely.
In Angelou’s book, "caged birds" struggling to escape their cages are metaphorical for her fight against racist oppression. The title comes from "Sympathy," a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet Angelou admired.
“By turning Angelou’s childhood home into an empathy museum that would foster respect for other individuals, we’d be able to continue her effort to inspire countless people to keep striving for freedom and justice for all,” Newkirk writes.
Newkirk has requested that, should another existing offer fall through, Olsen consider PETA’s proposal. It’s unclear what an empathy museum would look like, although the existing details suggest an anguished staging ground for birds’ suffering, sans any actual birds in recovery. At least it makes sense for the house to lack real birds — what is a house but a slightly larger cage?
Overall, PETA has good intentions. We’re just not sure if we can say the same of their reading comprehension.