This collage is from a series that directly references Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem Sympathy (1893). Dunbar (1872–1906), was an African American poet, playwright, and novelist known for using a conversational tone in his works. Enslaved in Kentucky prior to the Civil War, Dunbar’s parents provided inspiration for his writing, which in turn is said to have inspired Maya Angelou. Sympathy describes a bird’s attempts to free itself from its restrictive cage, a metaphor for Black history and experience in America. The two parrots that encircle the woman are often associated with being exotic caged pets, while also symbolizing intelligence and beauty.
In the 1970s, Betye Saar emerged as part of the Black Arts Movement and remains best known for her collage and assemblage works. Raised in Los Angeles, she worked as an interior designer in the 1950s and shifted to printmaking a decade later. After the Watts Rebellion, commonly known as the Watts Riots, and assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, she began to create assemblage pieces that referenced politics, racism and racist symbols, technology, and memory. She uses her trove of collected/found objects to make works of art infused with stories that have personal meaning or that reimagine racist memorabilia into symbols of empowerment.