What better time than Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to ponder the subject of oppression in the United States? And what better way than by looking at one of the starkest documents of oppression ever written? I refer, of course, to Mo Willems’ disturbingly frank 2003 cri de coeur, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
The pigeon’s story is the heart of the book – he is everypigeon – but since he can’t get a break in the vicious mammalian patriarchy, his story is co-opted right at the onset by Massa Driver, who’s smug, smiling Aryan features greet us the moment we open the book. He’s just going to run a quick errand, he tells us – and from the wandering direction of his hands, we can infer that his ‘errand’ will take him to the red-light district (perhaps even the slave quarters? we can’ be sure, and we hesitate to pre-judge) – but he wants to make a polite request of us before he goes: no matter what we do, we must promise not to let the pigeon drive the bus. It’s in exactly this way that corrupt dictatorships work their perfidies – not with an unholstered gun but with a conspiratorial arm around the shoulder.
He’s no sooner sauntered off than the object of his scorn shuffles on-stage, bobbing and pecking in the obsequious Stepin Fetchit posture he’s learned through bitter years of dealing with people like Massa Driver. He’s doing his best to be friendly and ingratiating, but he has one thing on his mind:
He’d like his chance at driving the bus. He’s hoping you’ll – we’ll – give him that chance.
He’s wheedling about it. He’s faux-cheerful, his eyes exaggeratedly wide, his posture deferential. He tries to make a game of as his heart is breaking. He even invents a desperate tale of ‘friends’ of his – other pigeons with kinder Drivers, pigeons who are allowed to get behind the wheel.
Finally he’s driven to that most galling of all admissions: “I have dreams too” – how many of us have walked right by a pigeon without granting even that simple fact? How many of us have stood around the water cooler passively listening while somebody told a pigeon-joke (do your folks back home in Stamford still call them “rats with wings”? Do you still let them?)?
It’s our complacency as much as anything else that draws out his eruption of rage. He has born our iniquities and suffered our afflictions, and his avian soul cries out “ENOUGH!”
But the system is too strong. The time has not yet come. Massa Driver returns, cheerful (sated?) and confident. He asks us, tauntingly, if we’ve let the pigeon drive the bus – he knows his will is the stronger; he knows there have been no uprisings this day.
The pigeon – indeed, the pigeon inside all of us – has been defeated, and the oppression continues. The bus drives off, and the dream of a day when pigeons will proudly drive the bus … that dream is deferred.