Maya Angelou’s The Graduation


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Throughout life graduation, or the advancement to the next distinct level of growth, is sometimes acknowledged with the pomp and circumstance of the grand commencement ceremony, but many times the graduation is as whisper soft and natural as taking a breath. In the moving autobiographical essay, "The Graduation," Maya Angelou effectively applies three rhetorical strategies - an expressive voice, illustrative comparison and contrast, and flowing sentences bursting with vivid simile and delightful imagery - to examine the personal growth of humans caught in the adversity of racial discrimination.

In an expressive voice, Ms. Angelou paints a memorable picture of a small black community anticipating graduation day fifty-five years ago. She describes the children as trembling "visibly with anticipation" and the teachers being "respectful of the now quiet and aging seniors." Although it is autobiographical, an omniscient voice in the first six paragraphs describes how "they" - the black children in Stamps - felt and acted before the omniscient voice changes to a limited omniscient narration in the seventh paragraph. Her eloquent voice skillfully builds the tension as she demonstrates bigotry destroying innocence.

The same consistent, expressive voice introduces Ms. Angelou's effective strategy of comparison and contrast. By comparing what the black schools don't have, such as 'lawn, nor hedges, nor tennis courts, nor climbing ivy,' reveals not only a clear illustration of what luxuries the white schools in the forties had but also how unjust the system was. The adults at the graduation focus on the differences that were previously left unspoken. The black principal's voice fades as he describes "the friendship of kindly people to those less fortunate then themselves" and the white commencement speaker implies that" the white kids would have a chance to become Galileo's.... and our boys would try to be Jesse Owenes..." The author's emotions vary from the first proclamation that "I was the person of the moment" to the agonizing thoughts that it "was awful to be a Negro and have no control over my life" to the moment of epiphany: "we are on top again."

Ms. Angelou's rhetorical strategy of comparison and contrast serves as effectively as her brilliant, flowing sentences sprinkled with colorful simile and imagery. Poetic phrases describing a voice "like a river diminishing to a stream, and then a trickle" or the audience's conditioned responses as "Amen's and Yes, sir's began to fall around the room like rain through a ragged umbrella" paint vivid images.

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In long flowing sentences, unspoken emotions are revealed in phrases such as "lost tears were pounded to mud, and then to dust" and passions expressed in the climactic denouement phrase "the depths have been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls," as the black society rises, or graduates, above the ignorance and ugliness of discrimination.

Ms. Angelou succeeds in portraying personal growth under the guise of a child's memory by using a strong expressive voice, striking examples of comparison and contrast, and long flowing sentences. Red-ribboned diplomas are not awarded at every stage of growth; more often our hearts just soar when our wings take flight above adversity.


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