The Effect of Discrimination in Maya Angelou’s “Graduation” and Rachel Swir
The topic of discrimination is intricate, controversial, and multifaceted. It is the weapon of bigotry, and targets people for belonging to a certain group, be it based on gender, religion, race, or something else. It can be explicit, implicit, emotional, physical, or verbal. Discrimination is a popular social issue today; those who discuss it examine its causes and effects from several viewpoints and societal standings.
Despite its recent rise in the arena of social politics, people have been prejudiced and intolerant towards each other for nearly all of human history. It has been discussed through political, social, and academic angles, but literature has been the prime method of analyzing and recording it throughout time. Maya Angelou’s “Graduation” and Rachel Swirksy’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” both discuss types of discrimination and their effects on the characters of the stories. The discrimination exhibited in Donleavy’s speech in “Graduation,” while less explicit than the violent physical racism in “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” is even more emotionally damaging because it makes a more lasting impression on its impressionable victims. “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” follows a strict repetitive structure and appears to be a light and romantic piece until the scene of the bar fight appears. Here, the repetitive structure breaks, and the “dinosaur” described in the story is beaten bloody.
“…seizing the pool cues with which they beat you, calling you a f**, a towel-head, a she-male, a sissy, a spic, every epithet they could think of, regardless of whether it had anything to do with you or not, shouting and shouting as you slid to the floor in the slick of your own blood.” Clearly, the story enters a dark and violent scenario.
The language in the last phrase of the quote vividly describes the physical effect of the attack on the “dinosaur”. It is caused by bigotry, as indicated by the string of slurs directed at the victim. The specific detail about the pool cues implies that this was an isolated incident – a single, brutal attack on a person because of prejudiced beliefs. This is a damaging incident, emotionally and physically. The victim is left battered and beaten, on the verge of death, because of discrimination. The hatred cultivated and encompassed in the “five blustering men soaked in gin and malice” built until it was released in a rageful encounter.
The narrator, presumably Swirsky, is indignant and vengeful in response to this attack. “I’d watch as you decanted their lives – the flood of red; the spill of glistening, coiled things – and I’d laugh, laugh, laugh.” She is filled with so much anger towards the people who hurt a person she loved that she is willing to commit the same degree of criminal brutality to avenge her lover, as can be seen from those gorey and detailed imagery in her words that parallels that of the original attack. However, this anger is neither permanent nor acted upon. “If I laughed, laughed, laughed, I’d eventually feel guilty.
I’d promise to never do something like that again… if nothing could break you, then nothing could break me.” The narrator realizes that her conscience prevents her from becoming those men. Her remorse would not be worth the temporary satisfaction of harming more people. Instead, she goes on to show how both she and her “dinosaur” can find strength from the horror. They together cannot be broken.
While the physical and emotional damage is still there and must be dealt with over time, the couple are also empowered in their mutual love and individual strength. The narrator’s mindset is not altered – she is angry at injustice, not demoralized by it. Angelou’s “Graduation” addresses discrimination is a different way through Edward Donleavy’s speech. It is purely racial and presents itself in an incredibly sophisticated manner. The tone is set for his speech with the principal’s introductory remarks – Donleavy is a busy man, and must leave immediately after he is finished, as he has more important events scheduled. In the speech itself, Donleavy makes continuous yet subtle nudges at the inferiority of Angelou’s all-black school to the white one.
He calls it “the other school” and speaks of the improvements and amenities that the white school would be receiving in the upcoming school year. He goes on to praise the Lafayette County Training School solely on the athletes it has produced. He constructs a very rigid and specific path to success for the black students. It can only be accessed by athletes. The thinkers and artists and designers of the school cannot, according to Donleavy, achieve real success because that sort of thing is reserved for the white students.
This message served only to demotivate and subdue the audience – the opposite emotions and reactions that should be present at a graduation. The way Donleavy corners the students and confines them to specific levels of achievement because of their race is subtle, but it has a very clear effect on those receiving his speech. “The man’s dead words fell like bricks in the auditorium… The accomplishment was nothing… Donleavy had exposed us.” His message had shown the farce that this whole celebration supposedly was. It is pointless to commemorate the work of students who could and would never really accomplish anything of note in their lives anyway. Donleavy has implied that if the black students wanted success, they could go into sports (further enforcing the stereotype that black people can only be distinguished at athletics).
Otherwise, they, as Angelou stated, “were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we [they] aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.” Donleavy’s discrimination, unlike that of “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” is not openly brutal and violent. Edward Donleavy does not punch, hit, or kick anyone, nor does he shout racial slurs and show hatred openly. Instead, he perpetuates and introduces to young children the mindset that African Americans are inferior and can only take the spots left after white people have chosen first. Angelou, her classmates, and her family, who had been eagerly anticipating the event as a coming of age and joyous celebration, were instantly deflated by the reminder that the rest of society believes them to be second-class citizens.
Angelou, 12 years old, is being told, at the event she has been excited for for weeks, that her limits for the rest of her life have already been imposed on her. “It was awful to be a 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 chance of defense.” The fact that Angelou is writing this piece 30 years later with such a clear memory of the effect the event had on her and everyone else in the audience shows how damaging Donleavy’s words really were. Physical and emotional abuse and discrimination are always warring with each other in the eyes of society in terms of their effect on victims.
In the specific cases examined by these two pieces, the physical attack in “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” is shocking, intense, and horrific, but it doesn’t alter the ideas and yearning for equality pursued by its characters. They eventually become empowered by the hatred they experienced. In “Graduation,” the speaker perpetuates a harmful and divisive idea, and sears it into the minds of impressionable young children. This is exponentially more damaging, because the children have no chance of defense. “Graduation” and “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” examine discrimination in its different expressions, both vying to show the detrimental effects it can have, but “Graduation” shows acceptance of injustice while “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” describes refusal of it.