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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou

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Chapter 23

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 23 of Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings | Chapter 23 | Summary



Maya is graduating from the eighth grade, and Momma sews a special dress for her to wear to the ceremony. Angelou describes the importance of both the grade-school and the high-school graduation ceremonies to the families, and the emotions with which the graduates approach this change in their lives. Maya is once again seeing colors and appreciating details in her surroundings. She feels happy and is proud to be at the top of her class, along with Henry Reed, the class valedictorian. But on the evening of the graduation, as the family walks toward the school, Maya suddenly has a sense of foreboding. At the beginning of the ceremony, after the Pledge of Allegiance, the principal requests that everyone be seated. Normally this is when they would sing the song known as the Negro National Anthem. Then he introduces the guest speaker, Mr. Edward Donleavy, a white politician.

Mr. Donleavy barely looks at the audience and reads a speech about all the improvements that will be coming to the schools, thanks to him. The white schools will be bringing in a famous artist as a teacher and new chemistry equipment, while the African American schools will get a paved playing field and new equipment for home economics and the workshop. Then Donleavy makes a quick exit. The celebratory mood of the audience has plummeted, and Maya is furious: her graduation has been ruined. Henry Reed recites his prepared speech and then unexpectedly leads the graduates in singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often called the Negro National Anthem, which lifts the mood of the audience. For the first time Maya really listens to the meaning of the words of the song, and it fills her with pride and hope.


Angelou's description of the excitement and traditions surrounding school graduation illustrates the importance with which education is regarded in the community. As Maya looks forward to her graduation, she's feeling happy, proud of her accomplishments, and hopeful about her future. But her graduation ceremony is ruined by Mr. Donleavy's speech. Without realizing (or perhaps not caring), the message he's giving to the community is racist and insulting. Donleavy promises that if he's elected, their school will get a new playing field and some home economics and workshop equipment. In essence, he is telling the new graduates that their academic achievements don't matter because their primary value to society is as athletes, cooks, and laborers.

Henry Reed's decision to sing the Negro National Anthem after it is skipped over out of deference to Mr. Donleavy strikes a note of defiance in the hall. The act of coming together to sing the familiar, beloved anthem seems to restore the community's resolve to continue to work together toward their goals.

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