Identity in Maya Angelou's Graduation


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      The inquiry of identity is both a philosophical and a psychological question. Identity is not only comprised of the characteristics that make individuals unique, but also includes external perceptions that classify groups of people together. It gives individuals a unique sense of self, and also lends itself to the application of labels and stereotypes. I believe identity is an integral part of human existence. It creates societies and distinguishes culture. It gives individuals a sense of community and self-worth. I have an identity that no one else can own. It is a reflection of my past and the foundation for my future. Every decision I make becomes a part of my identity. But like all humans, I tend to change my mind frequently.

      My identity is dynamic. I think this is common for all humans. I believe that all people undergo changes and shifts in identity. I once knew a Navy SEAL that would tell stories of the missions that he carried out while in the service. He often commented on the fact of how easily he and his comrades could joke and carry normal conversation merely minutes after having killed other soldiers. The dramatic change from a stalking killing machine to a “good ol’ drinking buddy” was astonishing. Maya Angelou describes in her essay “Graduation” an abrupt shift in identity that she experienced. During her 8th grade commencement ceremony, she became painfully aware of the prejudice and stereotypes that haunt her race. She also realized the history of this behavior and the obstacles that she faces when she heard the words to the Negro National Anthem “for the first time” (Angelou 38). I think it is common to experience moments in life that significantly change identity. I believe the most common shift in identity is the maturation process.

      I’ve always been fairly levelheaded, but within the last four years I have matured significantly and adapted my identity appropriately. My priorities have shifted and my attitudes have changed. I am essentially a different person. This change happened when I decided to return to school to finish my bachelor’s degree. I was holding down a full-time position, but in reality I was trying to perform the job of two people.

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It was a one-man show, and I was it. I was the technician and supervisor all rolled into one. I felt I was being neither rewarded nor recognized for my effort. I was being blatantly discriminated against because I did not have a college degree. I was capable of handling a supervisory position, but upper management did not agree. I have to admit that I am resentful about the whole situation, but I know that I am better off with the decision to finish my education. Since I began school, I have no longer concerned myself with drinking mass quantities of alcohol in attempts to fit in with my peers. I have found better things in life to enjoy and have become confident with my abilities and myself.

      Now that I have achieved a certain level of comfort, I have again reached a turning point in my life. After successful completion of the fall semester I will be graduating. I never envisioned graduation as a time of confusion and fear, but now that it is approaching I am unsure of what to do next. I have to set new goals and face new challenges. Now I am supposed to go back to the “real world” and get a job and work for the rest of my life. This does not sound appealing to me at all. I want to do something extraordinary. I want to travel and see the world and experience different people and places. I once had a clear idea of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, but now I am uncertain of what the future holds for me. I thought that going back to work and making (more) money would satisfy me, but now I am having second thoughts. I hate to be a victim of the typical college senior fear of the unknown, but I must now rely upon my experience and knowledge to serve me well.

      It is true that I feel older and wiser now. Prior experience has shaped my current perspective of the world. Hence, it also shapes my identity and my future. My memory plays a key role in retaining this perspective. Remembering and learning from all situations is part of growing up. John Kotre states that memory consists of “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” (147). This is the obvious key to the internal identity I have about myself. I know what I am like and what I am capable of doing, but I would guess that most people have a somewhat different view of me. My friends, family, and even strangers impose an external identity upon me. The external identity that I have is completely foreign to me.

      I think all people wonder how others perceive them. I am a tall, white male. What assumptions are made because of these facts of which I have no control? It is a shame that many character judgements are based upon external appearance and ignorant presumptions. I am predominantly an introvert, unfortunately this is sometimes interpreted as arrogance and snobbery. That assumption could not be farther from the truth. I am humble, yet I am confident. I am not perfect by any means, but I do not look down upon people because of my own ignorance.

      It was not until I read Jincy Willet’s personal insight of her rape that the distinction between external and internal identities occurred to me. I did not understand how she could say that the rapist “did not touch [her]” (Willet 617). I, like others, assumed that this encounter would have a profound negative affect upon her personality, her character and her life. She made it perfectly clear that people are not “all alike” (Willet 617). Although an unfortunate “collision of machines,” Willet was not willing to let the rape or hate or anger or fear become part of her identity (617). I respect Jincy Willet for taking this profound stand. It’s the non-conformist in me that admires this most. Everyone is born with a brain of their own, and I think it should be used accordingly.

      My identity is obviously not static. My identity changes, as do the components that make up my identity. The information on my driver’s license is only a very small part of my identity and practically plays a mute role in my behavior. My identity is a victim of my circumstance. My skin color, my sex, my height, my age, my peers, and my parents have influenced my identity and made it what it is today.

 
Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. “Graduation.” Cromley 29-39.

Cromley, Nancy R., et al, ed. Fields of Reading: Motives for Writing. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Kotre, John. “How Memory Speaks.” Cromley 146-157.

Willet, Jincy. “Under the Bed.” Cromley 612-619.


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