Maya notes that black families in Stamps consider the eighth-grade graduation a great event. When Maya takes her seat in the school auditorium, however, she feels uneasy. The white speaker, Mr. Edward Donleavy, gives a speech about the improvements in the local schools. The white school has received new lab equipment for science classes thanks to his efforts. He also states that he has bragged to many important people that several great college athletes graduated from Maya’s school. Maya feels that he has blemished the joy of the graduation day by insinuating that black children only achieved greatness through sports, not through academics. The members of the eighth-grade class hang their heads in shame. Maya laments the fact that she has no control over her life and wishes that Christopher Columbus never sailed to the New World. After his speech, Donleavy rushes to leave.
Henry Reed’s valedictory speech dispels the dismal atmosphere, but Maya reacts with cynicism and pessimism. Henry continues to speak with strength and clarity, and afterward he turns his back to the audience and addresses the graduating class sitting on the stage. He leads them in “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a song known popularly as the Negro National Anthem. Maya listens to the words for the very first time, drops her cynical attitude, and takes pride in her black community.
Maya develops an excruciating toothache. The nearest black dentist practices twenty-five miles away, so Momma takes Maya to see Dr. Lincoln, a white dentist in town. During the Great Depression, Momma loaned money to many people, including Dr. Lincoln. Now she believes he owes her a favor. When they arrive, Dr. Lincoln states that he does not treat black patients. Momma reminds him that her generous loan saved him before. He reminds her that he repaid the loan, adding that he would rather stick his hand in a dog’s mouth than in Maya’s black mouth. Momma leaves Maya outside and advances into Dr. Lincoln’s office. Maya imagines Momma as a superhero, wielding her powers and forbidding Dr. Lincoln ever to work in Stamps again. In reality, Momma tells Dr. Lincoln that he owes her interest on the loan she previously made to him. He protests, saying that she never asked for interest before, but he pays her the ten dollars, demanding a receipt to seal the deal. Afterward, Momma takes Maya to the black dentist in Texarkana. Talking with Uncle Willie later on, Momma indicates that even though she sinned in making Dr. Lincoln pay interest retroactively, he deserved it.
He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to unravel, start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death.See Important Quotations Explained
One day, Bailey returns home from an errand, pale and shaken. He asks what black people did to white people to incite so much hatred. He has just seen a black man’s dead, rotting body pulled from a pond. Grinning at the body, a white man ordered Bailey to help load the man into the wagon and then pretended that he was going to lock Bailey and the other black men in with the dead body. Not long afterward, Momma begins planning a trip to take Bailey and Maya to live in California with their mother.
Momma lives in Los Angeles with Bailey and Maya while Vivian makes living arrangements for her children. Maya and Bailey begin to see Vivian not just as a superhuman beauty but also as a real person with fears and insecurities of her own. Vivian seems concerned with her children’s well-being and even throws them a special party one night at two-thirty in the morning, enchanting Maya with her fun-loving and spontaneous nature.
Although trained as a nurse, Vivian supports herself and her children by running poker games or gambling. Maya notes that even though Vivian exhibits temperamental, melodramatic outbursts, she never compromises fairness. Maya discusses Vivian’s power and her honesty. Once, Maya recalls, Vivian shot one of her partners for verbally insulting her, and afterward, they retained their mutual admiration for each other. After all, Vivian had warned him that she would shoot before pulling the trigger.
Soon after, the U.S. enters World War II and Vivian marries Daddy Clidell, a successful businessman. The family moves to San Francisco.
Edward Donleavy’s speech is a slap in the black community’s face. The black community’s excitement over the graduation comes from the fact that they have had to fight very hard to receive even a modicum of education. Black activists of earlier generations had fought to build schools for black children. Before emancipation, educational opportunities for African-Americans were rare, especially in the South. After emancipation, black Americans faced hostility toward their education from their former masters. In Stamps, the graduating eighth-grade and high-school classes surmount the pressures of poverty and racism to earn their diplomas. Donleavy’s speech indicates that their achievements in education are worthless and misdirected. The white school has received tangible improvements aimed at increasing and bettering the opportunities for white students in science and art, but Donleavy’s description of bragging about the college athletes from their school suggests, at best, that the black schools do not receive tangible improvements like the science equipment and new art teacher at the white school. Unfortunately, Donleavy’s remarks shame the black children into bowing their heads and thinking that they should not value their education and their graduation. Maya remarks that Donleavy “exposed” them. Even more insulting, Donleavy expects the students and their parents to be grateful to him for his pathetic efforts.
Momma’s confrontation with Dr. Lincoln introduces the important idea of the ethics of necessity in Maya’s autobiography. Maya imagines that Momma battles Dr. Lincoln and brings him to his knees, but in reality Momma compromises her own sense of ethics in order to extract money from Dr. Lincoln. Momma admits that it is wrong to demand interest on a loan retroactively. To a certain extent, Maya’s dire situation spurred Momma to demand the interest. The ethics of necessity, however, applies more to the fact that Momma wants Dr. Lincoln to pay for his evil, racist refusal to treat Maya, and for his ingratitude toward the humane and generous black woman (Momma) who saved his practice with her money. Momma does not really consider her compromise to be a bad thing, for she and Willie laugh about the incident while discussing it. The ethics of necessity by which blacks justify lying or even illegal actions to achieve retribution toward whites continues to operate in the autobiography, particularly in San Francisco, when Maya meets Daddy Clidell’s con-artist friends. It differs greatly, however, from the type of serious criminal activity exhibited by Maya’s family in St. Louis.
Momma’s decision to take Bailey and Maya to California exemplifies her practical nature as well. This time, however, Momma does not laugh while making this sacrifice. In this case, she shows her quiet bravery. She loves her grandchildren so much that she decides to part with them. She chooses to save them from further ugly encounters with racist Southern whites. Although she has never before traveled more than fifty miles from her place of birth, Momma leaves Willie and her business to live in Los Angeles for six months while her grandchildren settle into their new life. The calm with which she makes the abrupt change shows a steely, resourceful character.
Maya’s reversal from disgust to pride during the graduation shows that she has begun to take serious pride in being a member of a resilient black community. Donleavy’s speech makes Maya terribly angry, to the point where she imagines a retelling of history that is just as murderous and violent toward white people as toward blacks. Not even Henry Reed’s beautiful speech can pull Maya out of her pessimism. However, when Henry invokes the Negro National Anthem, he reminds the audience, his fellow graduates, and eventually Maya that they should retain their pride in themselves and their abilities. Maya comes to realize that other black people have worked hard to provide her with the opportunity to graduate from school. Perhaps more important to Maya’s development, given her love for literature and poetry, she comes to understand that blacks have written poetry and literature in celebration of black identity and achievement. Maya remarks that, before, she paid attention only to Patrick Henry and other white freedom fighters. Now, she listens for the first time to the words of James Weldon Johnson’s inspirational song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and no longer considers herself just a member of the graduating class, but also a member of “the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.” As an adult looking back, Maya thanks black artists and poets for helping her to sustain her hope and realize her black pride in the midst of disappointment and discouragement.