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Free Study Guide-I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou-Summary
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Chapter 23

Summary

Graduation fever hits Stamps in a big way. The town is filled with anticipation and activity, as everyone gets ready for the big day. If they can afford them, the graduates buy new shoes and clothes. Since Maya is graduating from eighth grade, Momma makes her a new dress with lots of frills.

Everyone, including Maya, is proud of Maya’s accomplishments in middle school. She was at the top of her class and did well in every aspect of her studies. As a reward, Maya receives gifts of money, a Mickey Mouse watch from Momma and Uncle Willie, embroidered handkerchiefs from Louise, a leather bound copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry from Bailey, and lots of encouragement from everyone.

Unlike the white school, the black Lafayette County Training School has no lawns, hedges, or fences. As a result, the graduates walk under a few persimmon trees. The girls are withdrawn, but the boys are more outgoing. When the ceremony begins, the

principal announces a speaker, Edward Donleavy, who is a white administrator. Donleavy greets everyone and goes on to tell about the wonderful changes he has made in the white school. He speaks of new microscopes and chemistry equipment. Then he praises the black school for producing first-line football tackles. Suddenly the listeners are made aware of their destinies: the whites are expected to become Galileos and Madame Curies, while the black students should strive only to be another Jesse Owns or Joe Louis. If they fail to be athletic stars, they seem destined to become farmers, handymen, or maids. After Donleavy’s speech Maya feels absolutely dejected. The day no longer holds any value for her.

When Maya’s name is called, she goes listlessly up to the stage. She is no longer proud to receive her diploma. Then a classmate begins to sing the Negro national anthem. Maya’s heart soars as she hears the words. She finds herself silently thanking the songwriter for easing the hearts of her people.

Notes

Unlike the previous lighter chapters, this one is more serious. It is graduation day in Stamps, at the grammar schools, middle schools, and high schools. All of the graduates are excited and are made to feel like nobility.


As the graduate ceremonies begin for the black students, the boys are more friendly and outgoing than usual; they are trying to hide their concerns about their futures. In contrast, the girls are quiet and sad about moving on in life. Only a few of the students are going on to college. The majority will take jobs as carpenters, handymen, masons, servants, dishwashers, and maids.

Maya is particularly excited and proud about graduating from eighth grade, for she has finished at the top of her class and excelled at everything she has done in school. As a reward, Momma has splurged and sewed her a new graduation dress with lots of frills. Unfortunately, Maya’s day is spoiled by Mr. Donleavy. He is the white administrator who speaks at Maya’s graduation. He praises the white schools for excelling in math and science; he then praises the black schools for excelling in athletics. The speech upsets many of those in attendance, especially Maya. She suddenly feels miserable about her future, for she knows that she will not be an athlete and has little else to look forward to .

Maya’s disappointment dissipates when she hears the singing of the Negro national anthem. Suddenly she realizes that her people have survived the pains of the past and will endure the future. The words of the anthem make her proud again, and she silently thanks the writer of the anthem and all other inspirational black poets: "Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or by the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?"

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