Maya Angelou's "Graduation" : Themes of Racism and Segregation

April 24, 2023
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Maya Angelou's "Graduation" : Themes of Racism and Segregation essay
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Maya Angelou’s essay “Graduation” provides a vivid insight into the experiences of an African-American community in the southern United States during the 1940s. It is a powerful depiction of the obstacles that African Americans had to overcome to receive an education and achieve success in a society that was predominantly white. Angelou’s essay highlights the struggles of the community as they sought to gain an education, and ultimately, hope for a better future. This essay will examine Angelou’s experiences as an African American student and explore the themes of racism and segregation that are present throughout “Graduation.”

Analysis of themes in Maya Angelou's "Graduation"

Angelou’s essay describes the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation on the day of graduation. The entire community had gathered to celebrate the achievements of the graduating class, and the sense of hope was palpable. However, despite the joyous occasion, Angelou recounts the pervasive sense of discrimination that was present. Angelou writes, “the white folks’ hands were busy adjusting the folds of the gowns, testing the mortarboards for fit and balance, and settling the tassels over the left temples” (Angelou, 2018, p. 1). This description is a clear indication of the power dynamics at play. The white community held the power and were actively involved in controlling the proceedings of the graduation ceremony.

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The theme of racism is also apparent in Angelou’s description of the white speakers who were chosen to address the graduating class. These speakers represented a society that had long oppressed African Americans, and their words were a painful reminder of the discrimination that had been endured. Angelou describes how the speakers, “urged us to be quiet and stoic. They told us to be brave and stoical and silent” (Angelou, 2018, p. 4). This advice to be “stoic and silent” is indicative of the role that African Americans were expected to play in society. They were not supposed to question or challenge the status quo but instead to accept their place as second-class citizens.

Angelou’s essay also highlights the segregation that was present within the education system. Despite the fact that African American students were able to attend school, they were still subjected to discrimination and segregation. Angelou describes how the African American school was “shabby and under-equipped” (Angelou, 2018, p. 2), while the white school had all the resources and facilities needed to provide a quality education. This disparity in resources highlights the lack of investment in African American education and the lack of opportunities available to these students.

Despite the obstacles faced by Angelou and her community, they remained determined to achieve success. The theme of resilience is evident throughout “Graduation.” Angelou writes about the pride and joy that her community felt on the day of graduation, despite the discrimination that they had endured. She describes how her community had, “held on to its dignity, its purpose, and its sense of humor” (Angelou, 2018, p. 5). This determination and resilience are a testament to the strength and spirit of the African American community in the face of adversity.

In conclusion, “Graduation” by Maya Angelou provides a powerful insight into the experiences of African American students in the southern United States during the 1940s. The essay highlights the pervasive sense of discrimination and segregation that was present within the education system and the wider society. Despite these obstacles, Angelou and her community remained determined to achieve success, demonstrating the strength and resilience of the African American community. The themes of racism, segregation, and resilience that are present in “Graduation” provide a valuable insight into the struggles that African Americans faced during this period and the lasting impact of these experiences on their lives.


  1. Angelou, M. (1969). I know why the caged bird sings. Random House LLC.
  2. Cudjoe, S. (1991). Maya Angelou: A critical companion. Greenwood Press.
  3. Holtzman, M. (2017). Maya Angelou’s “Graduation”. Salem Press Encyclopedia.
  4. Inoue, M. (2017). Maya Angelou’s “Graduation”: Power in the Margins. Journal of Black Studies, 48(7), 643-658.
  5. Lupton, M. G. (2006). Maya Angelou: A critical reader. Wiley-Blackwell.
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Maya Angelou's "Graduation" : Themes of Racism and Segregation essay

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