"The Graduation" is a chapter found in Maya Angelou's autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." The 23rd chapter of the book, it focuses on Angelou's eighth-grade graduation in Stamps, Arkansas. Occurring in the racially segregated South, Angelou describes her experience graduating from the blacks-only grammar school and details the differences between the black and white schools.
Graduation fever grips the community of Stamps as large classes set to graduate from both the grammar school and high school. Underclassmen begin to fill the vacuum left by the outgoing seniors while the seniors begin to act, and be treated like, adults. Few Lafayette County Training School graduates go on to one of the South's agricultural and mechanical colleges, which are the only form of higher education available to blacks at the time. Parents order new shoes and store-bought clothes for themselves and their children but Angelou, like the other graduating eighth-grade girls, wear yellow pique dresses. The joy of the upcoming graduation lightens Angelou's spirits, as she shares, "I had taken to smiling more often, and my jaws hurt from the unaccustomed activity."
Leading up to graduation day Angelou is showered with gifts from her family and friends, receiving a Mickey Mouse watch from Momma, her grandmother; embroidered handkerchiefs from her friend, Louise; nickels or dimes from proud customers in the store; and a collection of Edgar Allen Poe poems from her brother, Bailey. Graduation day is bright and clear as the students file into the auditorium at a march, sing the national anthem and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Unlike a usual assembly, however, they do not follow the pledge with the "Negro National Anthem," the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. This break in routine gives Angelou a sense of foreboding about the rest of the ceremony.
The principal welcomes the parents, friends and students to the ceremony and invites the Baptist minister to lead a prayer. The principal returns to the podium to introduce the commencement speaker, Edward Donleavy, the white state representative from Texarkana. Donleavy details the improvements he has secured for the white high school's arts and sciences and for the Training School's sports facilities. The disparity greatly affects Angelou and her classmates, as "the white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos... and our boys (the girls weren't even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises."
The commencement speech taints much of the rest of the ceremony, until the class valedictorian, Henry Reed, a small boy with "hooded eyes, a long, broad nose and an oddly shaped head," rises to speak. His speech is based on Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy. Following the speech he turns around to face the graduating class and begins to sing "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." The graduating class joins in, followed by the teachers and members of the audience. The song, although sung by Angelou a thousand times before, takes on new meaning for her, lifting her spirits. She ends the chapter thanking the known and unknown black poets and songwriters who have made life more bearable through their songs and tales.
- "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"; Maya Angelou; 1969
- 123 Help Me: Maya Angelou's The Graduation
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