Being in the middle of graduation season, I've been having some interesting conversations with friends and family about black celebration, in general. Harvard had a black graduation ceremony a couple days ago, and so did my school, The University of Texas at Austin.
While these celebrations have been met with responses of much applause or, “it doesn’t concern me because it’s not for me,” I have also seen a few, and I really do mean a few, responses that hint at suspicions of segregation, with what I like to call “focused” commencement ceremonies.
First of all, separate commencement ceremonies are not a new idea. At schools like Harvard and my own university, UT Austin, the student body is overwhelmingly white. At UT, less than five percent of the student body identifies as black. Do you know what that means? At the traditional commencement, specks of black and brown faces in the graduating crowd are barely even noticeable.
Students have been fighting to celebrate their small communities on campus for much longer than this one year. Raising the funds to even support such an event is a task. It costs thousands of dollars to hire speakers, caterers, spaces and otherwise persuade leaders on campus (who usually happen to be non-black) that such a celebration is even necessary.
Second, after all the money that I paid in tuition to attend a school, heck yeah, I’m willing to pay a few extra dollars to support a celebration of us. Have you ever sat through a university graduation? It is boring, long and each student gets five seconds of fame from their family as they walk across the stage. Pomp and circumstance at its worst. Now, if I’m willing to sit through all of that in addition to the 99 percent chance that my name will be mispronounced, as I receive the piece of paper that signifies the five years of hard work that I sacrificed to finally be able to call myself a doctor, I’m going to need a real celebration beforehand. My parents, siblings, friends and whoever else wants to fly down to Texas to see me walk across the stage to receive one of the highest academic honors should not require binoculars to see me make it across the stage without tripping on my robe.
I need to hear the Black National Anthem as well as the second Black National Anthem, F.L.Y.’s iconic and memorable hit, “Swag Surfin’.” When those horns hit, it is time to celebrate. No one knows the words to any of the verses, but you grab shoulders and swag and surf, because we are one. I also need to know the people who are sitting around me, not simply know where to stand and sit because of the first letter of my last name.
And of course, this celebration is not all about the fun and vibes that we have with one another as a community. Everything from the commencement speakers to the traditions that we choose to include in our ceremonies is strategically chosen to address this specific audience of graduates. Since black students are not the minority at a black graduation ceremony, as they are accustomed to being at almost everything else throughout their university experience at PWIs, they are finally taken into major consideration when speakers like DeVon Franklin are chosen to address them with words of wisdom before they enter the “real world,” which is oddly similar to that of university, but I digress.
Having a problem with a black commencement ceremony is like having a problem with any other minority student campus organization. It isn’t segregation, it’s recognition of the student groups that are underrepresented, under-appreciated and knowledgeable of these two facts. We have our intimate moment of remembrance of our experience, receive encouragement and advice from speakers and faculty who know us and the world that we are about to face, and then we still attend the traditional all-university ceremony as well. It is usually not a matter of choosing one ceremony over the other or even preferring to celebrate achievement with one group or another, which seems to be the heart of the issue for those who do not understand the necessity for a black commencement ceremony. Yes, it is important for all people to see us walk across the traditional stage, and we will show up and do so with pride. That walk across the stage symbolizes so much about our achievement that cannot be put into words for our ancestors, the next generations, and both those who rooted for and doubted us along the way.
Attending and supporting a black commencement ceremony is simply a choice to finally, after however many years dedicated to being a part of an academic space, be able to let our guards down in the comfort of familiarity. Black graduates are finally surrounded by other black graduates who may not have had the same exact experiences, but simply “get it,” and that is a beautiful thing. I imagine that other affinity groups (Latinx, LGBTQ, etc.) who have their own commencement ceremonies feel the same way and do so for the same reasons.
Whether you choose to attend or not is up to you. I know that when my time comes, and my committee finally decides that I have done enough work, conducted enough research and proven myself worthy of my Ph.D., I will be elated to celebrate with the relative few black students who also make it through and the faculty members who were there supporting us along the way. I will also be proud to walk across the traditional stage, no matter how many strangers I find myself sitting amongst. These celebrations do not amplify or minimize the commitment and work that we will continue to do following our graduation. They remind us of the spaces with which we will forever be associated. And for some of us, one of them simply feels more like a community than the other.