Throughout our lives we all experience growing up and moving on to the next stages of our lives. Maya Angelou’s Graduation, demonstrates her own eighth grade graduation and feelings that she experienced as she moves on in segregated America. The story begins as an exciting and celebratory day, but then becomes more strange and belittling. While graduations are a common event, Angelou considers this a privilege, considering the little opportunities that African Americans had in society during the 1940’s. Angelou wants to demonstrate the inequities in segregated America through the anecdote of her eighth grade graduation by comparison of black versus white society, the shift in tone, and strong imagery.
Angelou’s use of comparison throughout Graduation shows the inequities of black society versus white society to almost a satirical level. The contrast between speeches from her classmate and valedictorian, Henry Reed, a black teenager, and Mr. Edward Donleavy, a white man, shows that despite their speeches have similar settings, they vary in sincerity and overall message. Reed gives his speech to excite his audience and to inspire his peers to excel after graduation. Mr. Donleavy, on the other hand, tells the graduates that their only career options as “negroes” could be as athletes or service workers. While Reed’s speech intends to empower and celebrate his peers, Mr. Donleavy wants to establish his superiority as a white man, and to ensure the votes from the adults in the upcoming election. This comparison of the two speakers demonstrates how much of a contrast there is between blacks and whites in segregated America.
The use of tone throughout the essay crafts the way that Angelou reacts to the events during the highly-anticipated graduation ceremony. The tone originally begins as exciting and anticipatory as the whole town of Stamps prepares for all of the graduations. She describes the weeks leading up to graduation as busy, yet the whole town is extremely passionate about these graduations as everyone in town plays a role in the excitement leading up to the event. Non-graduate high school girls were busy making refreshments, home economics students were preparing food for the event, and even the town minister wished the graduating students well before graduation day. All of these contributions add to the excitement and the anticipation that the town of Stamps feels in the beginning of the essay to exemplify how much of an honor and privilege it is to graduate. However, the tone quickly shifts from a positive tone to more somber as Mr. Donleavy gives his speech to belittle the African American community in Stamps. As Mr. Donleavy makes it clear that there are little opportunities for his audience after graduation, this crushes the spirit of not only Angelou and her peers, but the entire audience. This puts a lasting impression on Angelou, and she begins to question her role in society and feels shame in being African-American. Through her use of tone, she conveys to her audience how although the town was once so excited about an important event such as graduation, the mood shifts as the white men tried to assert their dominance in society.
Throughout Graduation, Angelou primarily tells her story through imagery to describe her surroundings leading up to her graduation ceremony. A primary use of imagery throughout the essay is when Angelou describes the dress that she would wear on graduation day. Though all of the graduating eighth grade girls would be wearing the same butter-yellow dress, Angelou goes into great detail when describing her dress, as to differentiate herself from the other girls. She also uses strong imagery when describing the days leading up to graduation in the town of Stamps, and how there was physical and noticeable change when graduation was near. She even takes interest in her peers, noticing the “clothes, their skin tones, and the dust that waved off pussy willows,” which shows how Angelou is becoming more excited as the days pass, and how she begins to notice her environment before she graduates. This imagery creates a more complete picture of the events leading up to graduation day as well as to differentiate Angelou from her peers, as she frequently demonstrates that she excels beyond her class.
Angelou’s use of comparison and contrast, tone, and imagery crafts a work that is both emotional and intriguing. Through these rhetorical devices, her overall message is to show the importance of graduations in her community, as well as the importance of education in society. Although she shows the realities of racism in a segregated society in the 1940’s, she demonstrates how she was able to acknowledge them, and also to overcome adversity.