Joan Didion’s “On Going Home” and Maya Angelou’s “Graduation” explore the theme of belonging. For Didion it is a sense of belonging gained through shared blood and experience. The kind of belonging that family memory builds; where acceptance is a matter of kinship and understanding is not something easily learned. Similarly, Angelou finds her sense of belonging through shared experience with the added element of racial inequality. Angelou begins her narrative with belonging to the graduating class and her experience segues it effectively into a belonging to the black race. Like Didion’s family relationship which can only be viewed and not wholly understood by an outsider (in this case, Didion’s husband), Angelou’s experience as a black girl growing up in the South can be only fully understood through the experience of belonging. For both writers, the outsider can no more penetrate this internal world and belong than Angelou or Didion can exist outside of their understandings of both.
In “On Going Home” Joan Didion examines the difficulties in confronting one’s childhood home as an adult and the duality of character that emerges in the experience. Didion makes the distinction at the beginning of the essay between the day to day task of traveling to one’s house/home and the physical and psychological journey that accompanies a return to their parent’s home, “By ‘home’ I do not mean the house in Los Angeles where my husband and I and the baby live, but the place where my family is […] It is a vital although troublesome distinction” (639). It is, in a way, a reverting to childhood; Didion’s husband though mentioned throughout is of minor consequence in her role as a daughter, sister, niece, etc. His lack of understanding and comfort in her family home marks him easily as an outsider.
In the first few paragraphs, Didion uses her husband as an example to distinguish the differences between the life she lives as an adult, wife and mother and her permanent role as daughter and sister. Her husband cannot understand the multiple references to people and times past, he cannot relate to the list of people committed to mental hospitals and otherwise befallen by consequence. He cannot reconcile the wife he knows with where she has come from. Though liking and liked by her family, he is the outsider and any connection they have as husband and wife is overshadowed in the presence of her family. As Didion explains, “Once there I fall into their ways, which are difficult, oblique, deliberately inarticulate, not my husband’s ways” (639).
Though it is obvious she shares common interests with her husband, as well as love and understanding, he cannot and will never be able to revisit her childhood with her. In meeting her as an adult and outside the context of family, Didion’s husband knows her on a level that has grown out of who she was without the details memories which make her familiar to her family. Just as telling, some of her family members are unable to see her in the context of a wife and mother. Just as their ways are not her husband’s, her husband’s ways are not their own.
There is a two-faced dimension to her husband and her family’s relationship with each other; each is set in their own orbit and while accepting of the other, they condemn each other for the differences. Her husband shows disdain over dusty housekeeping (639) and discomfort with table talk over people he does not know and their intimate problems. Being the outsider, he cannot understand the connections between their conversations and shared history and perception. As Didion notes, in explaining her brother’s inability to understand her husband’s lack of interest in certain topics, “Marriage is the classic betrayal” (640). Didion seems to call for and at the same time dismiss the necessity for a duality.
What is most interesting in Didion’s belonging and her husband’s role as the outsider, is the universality of both. The familial relationships between parents and child, sibling to sibling, etc., are the first place an individual finds identity and belonging. For the length of childhood and sometimes longer, the influences of these various people color a person’s view of the world and sense of self. When Didion is with her family, she is not only a woman, or a wife, or a mother; she is the little girl who learned to ride her bicycle along the front walk, the little girl who perched on her father’s shoulders, the pre-teen girl wrestling over a toy with her brother in the living room, a young woman telling her family that she has found the man she will marry. Family allows us to be all the things we were with very little room for the things we are. Having lived this truth, Didion seems most accepting of this distinction and the paradox between her selves.
Like Didion, Maya Angelou’s “Graduation” mulls over the matter of belonging. From the onset of the story, she places herself and her fellow graduates apart from the general population of her schoolmates, the regulars in the store, and even her family. Though her brother Bailey had been in the same position the year before, Angelou’s status as a graduate makes her feel special. The specialness of the occasion illustrated in many ways, not the least of which her feeling of superiority. Her entire perception of daily life is peppered with signs of her accomplishment from her new yellow dress to the Sunday breakfast on Friday.
The day itself, representing an educational as well as social milestone, is particularly special for her as she has made herself exceptional among her peers. Though she is not valedictorian, she still feels a strong pride and accomplishment for near perfect grades, attendance, and merit. This achievement alone, while separating her from the lower grades of students also provides her with commonalty among the other graduates. As Angelou explains, “Youth and social approval allied themselves with me and we trammeled memories of slights and insults. The wind of our swift passage remodeled my features. Lost tears were pounded to mud and then to dust. Years of withdrawal were brushed aside and left behind” (867).
However, with the speech from Mr. Donleavey that sense of oneness is tainted. Angelou is able to provide foreshadowing to an event that must struck her at the core of her self-confidence but this does not lessen the obviousness of the impact Donleavey’s speech had on her and the other people. Perhaps it was skepticism or as she calls it her fatalism but either way the feeling “of worse things to come” (869) speaks loudly of the impact a society of Donleavey’s had on her up to that point. To someone like him, all of the graduates and their families and communities belong to each other and each other alone. Belonging is a terrible thing when put into the context of a segregationist who sees a people as the color of their skin and not as individuals. Then audience is collectively reminded of where they belong in a society of Mr. Donleavey’s liking. They are not the doctors and lawyers of America but rather the athletes as illustrated by his concentration on athletic graduates of the school.
Donleavey’s campaign promises of a blacktopped basketball court and more funding for the status quo of shop, home economics and sports, is a disheartening reminder to Angelou and her peers that they are not to aim high. They may excel in math or English, may earn top scores among their peers but to men like Mr. Donleavey they will always be outsiders. Angelou’s frustration almost overcomes her, “anything higher that we aspire to was farcical and presumptuous” (870).
However, through Henry’s speech and recital of the Negro National Anthem she is able to recognize that while white society uses her belonging to the black race as a factor in excluding and weakening her, it is this belonging that has been the source of her strength. “We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race” (872). The song, sung by everyone in attendance, was once more able to put into perspective her place in the world. Not her place as transcribed by people like Mr. Donleavey but her place among her family and community.
While both writers speak of belonging and the role perception takes in understanding ones place, they offer two different approaches. Didion’s belonging is tainted with nostalgia. She is part of her family, permanently a child and sister and niece. Her history with them is unchanging and can remain silent. Her husband, as an outsider can never penetrate this closeness. Her daughter, Didion feels will never feel the same closeness to her history and her family. The constructs of family, as she sees it have changed to no longer allow the kind of activity or familial interaction that created Didion’s own childhood. She does not offer a solution to this but merely takes it as unchangeable proof.
Angelou’s belonging, on the other hand, is not one that changes with time. Her family is extended at the end of “Graduation” to encompass not only her immediate family but her relationship to others of her same race. The idea of family and belonging is extended past blood ties. Unlike Didion, Angelou provides some resolution in that her writing seems to be appealing to others to feel that same belonging and recognize the connections to each other. While she seems to only address “poets” (872), she is appealing to something deeper than putting the words down. Angelou is looking and offering inspiration with her words just as the anthem’s words provided her with inspiration. Both writer’s belong simultaneously to two worlds; for Didion it is a matter of relationship, for Angelou it is a matter of acceptance.
Possibly one of the most outstanding things about both essays was the readability. They could both be short stories rather than non-fiction essays. What makes them non-fiction are the personal truths and histories of the writers. Imagination, while not required for non-fiction reading is certainly an asset. As for writing non-fiction, for readability alone I think it is required. Even the truth needs to be told in such a way as to speak to the reader. Both writer’s accomplish this beautifully. Angelou constructs her story as though writing a short story, she is descriptive to a point that spurs the readers imagination. It is practically impossible not to see the school grounds, under-funded and disrepair, or to see the bright yellow of her dress as she makes her way to the assembly. Until the end “Graduation” when the emotion shines through the narrative, this writing is very much written with a remove that separates Maya Angelou from her young self. Didion is removed emotionally through her essay but the insight and conversational tone of her piece makes it seem almost journalistic. While she gives no long physical descriptions, she relates events such as her husband writing “DUST” on the surfaces of her family home or being mistaken for her dead cousin in such basic terms as to provide an instant pictures in the mind’s eye.
Angelou, M. (2007). Graduation. In Barnet, S., Burto, W., & Cain, W.E. (Ed.). Literature for Composition. (8th ed.). (pp. 865-872).
Didion, J. (2007). On Going Home. In Barnet, S., Burto, W., & Cain, W.E. (Ed.). Literature for Composition. (8th ed.). (pp. 639-641).