The Importance Of Graduation In The Book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

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Do you know why the caged bird sings? Maya Angelou published the book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in 1970 at the age of 42 after growing up during Segregation in the United States. The essay aims to inform and explain to the audience the importance of graduating. Angelou uses descriptive imagery, foreshadowing, tones, ethos, and pathos to express her feelings about maturing and the emotions about graduating at the time. Angelou’s essay is directed towards African Americans during the 1940s and segregation, along with those who just might be interested in her life.

The essay is informative and impersonal to start off. Angelou takes time to introduce the audience to the circumstances of the current events, without exposing her role. By attacking reachable emotions, Angelou builds the audience's enthusiasm and emotional involvement. Emotions that are expressed are those that might be felt by everyone, including herself, but not specifically. The emotions included are pride and excitement. Further in the essay, Angelou reveals her own emotions, as well as her own role in the narrative. She expresses her own feelings by describing how she would look (“I was going to be lovely.”). Angelou reveals her roles by stating that she herself is one of the many within the graduating class.

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Angelou also expresses her emotions by stating the awfulness she felt from the inequality. (“We were maids and farmers, and handymen….It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chances of defense.”) Due to segregation and inequality, Maya Angelou felt as if she had no say so, in what happened next in her life. Society norms had already determined her fate for her, and as Angelou thinks deeper, her thoughts become darker. Her deep dark thoughts and feelings about death help the audience understand her inner bitterness about being subjected to her life.

The purpose, which is to inform the importance of graduating and describe her emotions to the audience, is explored in the beginning as well as throughout the essay. The essay dedicated a small portion of her purpose. She states that her work had earned her a top place and she’d be among the first to graduate. Angelou even states her achievements of having no absences and no tardiness. Just knowing that Angelou strives hard during school, goes to show to the audience how much it meant to her to be able to attend school, and now graduate.

Throughout the essay, Angelou also uses specific word choices. Although, some of the audiences might be familiar with the time period the essay was written, others who aren’t could get a strong feeling from the use of “Negro” in the essay. There is a major difference between the use of the word Negro and African American. Negro puts the time period into effect, whereas African American is a more lighthearted term.

There are many other rhetorical devices used throughout the essay. Imagery is one that is used a fair amount. The details from the imagery help to convey what Angelou is feeling. In the beginning, Angelou describes the color dresses the graduating class had to wear, and how her mother “launched out” on hers. The imagery and the detail description of the dress add on to how important the event of graduating is for Angelou. She even goes as far as into detail of the “lemony cloth” and the puff on the sleeves.

Imagery is also used to describe her timeliness of waiting for the day to come. Angelou illustrates the days became longer and more noticeable. For the audience, this gives the sense that Angelou waited and counted the days down. She also describes the color of the sky, which has now become strong and sure colors, which can be how the “winning team” (the graduates) felt as they begin to gather. The imagery of the colors only adds to the freedom of the “open” fields, contradicting the little to no freedom of choices the graduating class has.

In the essay, pathos and this are used to provide hope to the graduating class from the valedictorian. The valedictorian’s speech gives the emotion that the graduates can do anything and that they’ll be able to overcome any challenge before them. Pathos is continuously used when phrases such as “outrageous fortune”, are placed within the valedictorian’s speech to provoke motivation. Since Henry Reed was valedictorian, his classmates would have trusted him at that very moment during his speech addressing the graduates. Reed's attitude is hopeful. The speech has already been undermined and it aims to set up the graduating class to be believers.

The previous speech was given by Edward Donleavy. Just like the valedictorian, he gave a speech about all the potential the current graduating class had, but his audience is beyond just the graduates. Donleavy talks about the academic opportunities that the graduates may have, along with the main point of his speech, athletic opportunities. The speech is delivered with no disregard and drills the unwanted acceptance that the best achievement of the graduating class would be to become an athlete or a service worker. The entire speech relies on ethos to help persuade the audience, before him, to re-elect him, and therefore he needs them to believe his claims about the Nergro community. Donleavy’s tone for his speech is condescending and as a result the audience, Maya Angelou, may not have enjoyed the speech very much on her special day.

Angelou uses careful phrases to tear Edward Donleavy apart. Angelou describes vividly, how all her excitement and anticipation for that day that had been built up had been completely drained. (“The man’s dead words fell like bricks around the auditorium and too many settled in my belly.”)

After Henry Reed’s speech, the graduates are led in the Negro national anthem. A song that is full of pathos. Reed had managed to bring back the energy that Angelou had lost saving her graduation day. Before Reed’s speech and the song, Angelou felt it was all for nothing. She felt awful about her situation, but afterward, she felt as if she was on top and brought positivity back.

Furthermore, Angelou’s redefined love for herself and her skin color, relates to allusion within Reed’s speech. Angelou was able to broaden existential questions to direct towards the black community. Juxtaposition is also used when the introduction to the National Negro Anthem help Angelou when she becomes more aware that she is in fact black and that the old literature does not address her situation, nor many others situation in segregated America.

Allusion is another rhetorical device used throughout Angelou’s essay. In the essay, Angelou uses allusion to refer to Nat Turner, George Washington, and Harriet Tubman to give examples of African Americans who were able to have notable achievements. Society during segregation and before, slavery, had biases about the roles Black Americans would and could play within the society. Providing the examples of those Black Americans that were lucky in being successful shows to the audience that it can be done.

Another rhetorical device used by Angelou in the essay is foreshadowing. She makes comparisons to the white school, and states “with a present inner of worse things to come”. Angelou’s mood varies along with the choice of her words and the length of the sentences. If things were becoming depressing, the sentences were sarcastic and short in length. At any point where things were being to excite her, the sentences were descriptive and long.

In the end, despite the hardships of her day during graduation, Maya Angelou stood out front he social norms of being a service worker or an athlete, she became a writer. Maya Angelou’s essay aims to describe to the reader the importance and the emotions of graduating during Segregation when she was a child. The essay uses ethos, pathos, descriptive imagery and tones to effectively convey a message.

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The Importance Of Graduation In The Book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. (2021, August 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from
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