The children in Stamps trembled visibly with anticipation. Some
adults were excited too. Large classes were graduating from both
the elementary school and the high school. Even those who were
years away from their own graduation were anxious to help with
preparations as a kind of practice. –
Parents who could afford it had ordered new shoes and readymade
clothes for themselves. They also hired the women who
did the best sewing to make graduation dresses and cut down
secondhand pants for the important event.
Oh, it was certainly important. Whitefolks would attend the
ceremony, and two or three would speak o f God and home, and
the Southern way o f life. The principals wife would play the
graduation march while the lower-grade graduates walked to
their seats below the platform. The high school seniors would
wait in empty classrooms to make their dramatic entrance.
In the’ Store I was the person of the moment. Bailey had
graduated the year before. My class was wearing yellow dresses, and
Momma had put special effort into mine. I was going to be
beautiful—a model of fine hand-sewing. It didn’t worry me that I
was only twelve years old and was just graduating from eighth grade.
I had started smiling more often, and my jaws hurt from the
new activity. As a member of the winning team (the graduating
class o f 1940) I had put unpleasant feelings behind me. I was
heading for freedom.
My work had earned me a top place in my class and I was
going to be one o f the first called in the graduating ceremonies.
No absences, no late arrivals, and my academic work was among
the best o f the year.
My hair pleased me too. Gradually the black mass had
lengthened and thickened, so that at last it stayed in its place and
didn’t hurt my head when I tried to comb it.
Among Negroes the tradition was to give presents to children
going only from one grade to another. How much more
important this was when the person was graduating at the top of
the class. Uncle Willie and Momma had sent away for a Mickey
Mouse watch like Baileys. Louise gave me four handkerchiefs
with hand-sewn designs. Mrs. Sneed, the ministers wife, made
me an underskirt to wear for graduation, and nearly every
customer gave me a nickel or even a dime with the instruction
“Keep on moving to higher ground,” or similar encouragement.
Amazingly the great day finally dawned and I was out o f bed
before I knew it. I threw open the back door to see it more
clearly. I hoped the memory o f that morning would never leave
- Barefoot in the backyard, I enjoyed the gentle warmth and
thanked God that no matter what evil I had done in my life, He
had allowed me to live to see this day.
Bailey came out and gave me a box wrapped in Christmas
paper. He said he had saved his money for months to pay for it.
He was as proud o f the gift as I was. It was a soft-leather copy o f
a collection o f poems by Edgar Allen Poe. I turned to “Annabel
Lee,” my favorite, and we walked up and down the garden rows
reading the beautiful lines.
Momma made a Sunday breakfast although it was only Friday.
After we finished the prayers, I opened my eyes to find the watch
on my plate. It was a dream o f a day. Everything went smoothly,
and I didn’t have to be reminded o f anything. Near evening I was
too nervous to do my chores, so Bailey volunteered to do them
all before his bath.
Days before, we had made a sign for the Store, and as we
turned out the lights, Momma hung it over the door handle. It
read clearly: CLOSED. G RA D U A T IO N .
My dress fitted perfectly and everyone said that I looked like a
sunbeam in it. On the hill, going toward the school, Bailey
walked behind with Uncle Willie, who wanted him to walk
ahead with us because it embarrassed him to have to walk so
slowly. Bailey said he’d let the ladies walk together, and the men
would follow. We all laughed, nicely.
The other members of my graduating class were standing
around the front steps. I joined them and didn’t even see my
family go in to find seats in the crowded room. The school band
played a march and all the classes walked in as we had practiced.
We stood in front of our seats until the principal signaled to us to
take our seats. As I sat down, I was overcome with a feeling that
something unplanned was going to happen, and we were going
to be made to look bad.
The principal welcomed “parents and friends” and asked the
Baptist minister to lead us in prayer. When the principal spoke
again, his voice had changed; it was weak and uncertain. He
talked about Booker T. Washington,* our “great leader.” Then he
said a few things about friendship and the friendship of kindhearted
people to those less fortunate than themselves. His voice
could hardly be heard. When he finished, he paused and then said
clearly, “Our speaker tonight, who is also our friend, came from
Texarkana to deliver the graduation speech, but due to the
irregularity o f the train schedule, he’s going to, as they say, ‘speak
and run.’ ” He said that we understood and wanted the man to
know that we were most grateful for the time he was able to give
- Then he introduced Mr. Edward Donleavy.
Not one but two white men came through the door at the side
o f the stage. The shorter one walked to the speaker’s platform and
the tall one sat down in the principal’s seat. The Baptist minister
gave the principal his chair and walked off the stage.
Donleavy looked at the audience once (I’m sure that he only
wanted to confirm that we were really there), adjusted his glasses,
and began to read from a pile o f papers.
* Booker T. Washington: a nineteenth-century Black educator
He was glad “to be here and to see the work going on just as it
was in the other schools.” He told us of the wonderful changes we
children in Stamps would see. The Central School (naturally, the
white school was Central) had already been granted improvements
that would be in use in the fall. A well-known artist was coming
from Little Rock to teach art to them. They were going to have
the newest equipment in their science laboratory. Mr. Donleavy
made sure we knew who made these improvements available to
Central High and said that we wouldn’t be ignored in the general
improvement plan he had in mind.
He said that he had pointed out to people at a very high level
that one o f the first-line football players at Arkansas Agricultural
and Mechanical College had graduated from Lafayette County
Training School. He went on to say how proud he was that “one
of the best basketball players at Fisk University sank his first ball
right here at Lafayette County Training School.”
The white kids were going to have a chance to become
Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our
boys (the girls weren’t even included) would try to be Jesse
Owenses and Joe Louises A
Owens and Louis were great Black heroes, but what school
official in the white-kingdom o f Little Rock had the right to
decide that those two men must be our only heroes?
The man’s words brought silence to the room. Held back by
hard-learned manners, I couldn’t look behind me, but to my left
and right the proud graduating class of 1940 had dropped their
heads. Every girl in my row had found something new to do
with her handkerchief.
Graduation, the magic time o f gifts and congratulations and
diplomas, was finished for me before my name was called. The
* Jesse Owens and Joe Louis: Jesse Owens was a Black runner, winner of many
races. Joe’Louis was a Black champion fighter.
achievement was for nothing. All our learning was for nothing.
Donleavy had shown us who we were.
We were servants, farmers, and washer-women. Anything
higher that we dreamed about was ridiculous.
It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It
was terrible to be young and already trained to sit quietly and
listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of
defense. We should all be dead.
Donleavy was running for election, and assured our parents
that if he won we would have the only cement playing field for
colored people in that part o f Arkansas. Also, we were sure to get
new equipment for cooking, sewing, and woodworking classes.
He finished, nodded to the men on the stage, and the tall man
who was never introduced joined him at the door. They left with
the attitude that now they were going to something really
The ugliness they left could be felt in the air. My name had
lost its familiarity and I had to be gently pushed to go and receive
my diploma. All my preparations were forgotten. I neither
marched up to the stage like a confident winner, nor did I look
in the audience for Bailey’s nod o f approval. Marguerite Johnson,
I heard the name again. My honors were read, there were noisej
o f appreciation in the audience, and I took my place on the stage
Then Henry Reed, our top graduate, was giving his speech,
“To Be or Not to Be.” Hadn’t he heard the whitefolks? We
couldn’t be, so the question was a waste o f time. The world didn’t
think we had minds, and they let us know it. I was amazed that
Henry could give the speech as if we had a choice.
I had been listening with my eyes closed and silently proving
false each sentence; then there was a silence, which in an
audience warns that something unplanned is happening. I looked
up and saw Henry Reed, the perfectly-behaved boy, the A
student, turn his back to the audience and turn to us (the proud
graduating class o f 1940) and sing, nearly speaking,
“Lift every voice and sing…”
It was the poem written by James Weldon Johnson. It was the
music written by J. Rosamond Johnson. It was the Negro
national anthem. We were singing it out o f habit.
Our mothers and fathers stood in the dark hall and joined the
song o f encouragement. Every child I knew had learned that
song with the alphabet. But I personally had never heard it
before. Never heard the words, despite the thousands o f times I
had sung them. Never thought they had anything to do with me.
Now I heard, really heard it, for the first time.
While echoes o f the song hung in the air, Henry Reed bowed
his head, said “Thank you,” and returned to his place in the line.
The tears that slipped down many faces were not wiped away in
We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. I was no
longer only a member o f the proud graduating class o f 1940; I
was a proud member o f the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.
Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. [http://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_-_Full_Text_PDF]. Retrieved from