Graduation day: a seemingly infallible day that will remain to be viewed as such just as it has since the beginning of public education. But as Maya Angelou’s Graduation makes evident, the ceremony’s reputation of infallibility and the series of events depicted in Graduation aren’t quite equal. Set in 1940 in Stamps, Arkansas, Dr. Angelou depicts the events leading up to and during her Middle School graduation ceremony, remembering both the joy and bitter disgust towards these events. Much like the civil rights movement as a whole, that day was a roller coaster, jam packed with both the triumph and dejection observed throughout the movement.
Dr. Angelou begins by painting a picture of the excitement felt by everyone in Stamps, and not just those that are graduating. Schoolchildren and adults who “were years removed from their own day of glorious release” (par. 1) alike felt the electric buzz in the air as the days persist to the defining day that they were all looking forward to. When the day finally arrived the “sunlight was itself young, and the day had none of the insistence maturity would bring it in a few hours” (par. 19-20). All was right with the world. That is until the ceremony itself where the ugliness that showed itself plain as day beyond those walls began to creep inside but was almost instantly cast out. Edward Donleavy and Henry Reed are the two responsible for allowing that ugliness to creep in and also for subsequently casting it out, respectively.
Donleavy’s speech immediately followed the principal’s message on Booker T. Washington and friendship (par. 31), a more than typical choice of topics for the occasion. Riddled with patronization and the subtle yet blatant racism that defined the era, Donleavy’s speech, which could be chalked up to nothing more than a simple stop on his campaign trail, droned on about the series of improvements that the Central School was to receive — Central naturally being the white school — in the coming years (par. 37). He went on about the white children growing up to become scientists, philosophers, doctors, anything to progress humanity on the destined path manifest in all white human beings, whereas the colored males would become the next great athletes to show their physical strength on the playing field (par. 40). Nothing more, nothing less. It is obvious to see that he feels like the black sheep in the herd and doesn’t particularly care anything about giving any sort of riveting account meant to inspire by any means; he just wants to go in, give his spiel, and get the hell out without even attempting to thank the audience or students seated behind him for their time. Which is exactly what he did.
Later in the ceremony, Henry Reed, the valedictorian, begins his speech quoting Hamlet’s soliloquy, asking the audience whether it is better “to be a man, a doer, a builder, a leader, or to be a tool, an unfunny joke, a crusher of funky toadstools” (par. 54). This contradicts what Donleavy’s lofty account led the audience to believe about the potential of colored students (par. 53). Juxtaposed to Donleavy, Reed at first seemed to be regurgitating wishful thoughts of doing something with his life despite his inherent imputation that will render him unable to be anything more than a brute confined to the inner circle of a stadium. But then Reed turned around to face the graduating class of 1940 and began singing the all too familiar composition the Negro nation anthem. The sea of schoolchildren habitually sang along, reveling in the larger than life spectacle they were putting on for the audience. While the last ringing note cascaded through the air Reed bowed his head, said “thank you,” and returned to his seat (par. 60).
It takes a certain kind of perseverance to be able to pick yourself back up after an emotional beat down like Donleavy’s speech and Reed’s followup to it is a beautiful example of how one’s perseverance can inspire many people to pick themselves back up and keep on keeping on. Whether it be the arrest of Rosa Parks or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement exemplifies the notion that when the odds are stack against you the last thing to do is accept defeat. If not for paragons like Dr. Angelou and Henry Reed civil rights may still be nothing more than some far fetched fantasy never to leave the confines of the great minds that paved the way for the movement to rock America’s boat and start the domino effect that eventually led to the change that they wanted to see in the world becoming a reality.