Why We Still Need Black Graduation Ceremonies

05.14.18

William Washington, Amarissa Imoukhuede, and Chè Benjamin at Drexel University’s Black Graduation ceremony on May 2. Photo courtesy of Chè Benjamin.

Picture this: Four drummers play traditional African rhythms as 420 black graduates walk into the room. A gospel choir leads the audience in singing the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Faculty of color share uplifting words. Believe in yourself, they say.

Forget pomp and circumstance. This is the black graduation experience.

Black graduation is where African-American graduating students come together to be celebrated and supported by their peers, faculty members, family, and friends.

I recently attended the black graduation at my school, Drexel University in Philadelphia. When I first arrived at Drexel, there were only a few black organizations and no place for black people to come together. But during my time here, my black classmates and I cultivated a real sense of community.

And yet, when I saw the invitation to the black graduation, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I was a little unsure of what to expect. I worried it was going to be some sort of corny, maybe even stereotypical event. But all my initial worries were swept aside as soon as the ceremony started.

As we marched in, the theater filled with joyful shouts and applause from friends and family in the audience. I felt like I was being cheered across a finish line.

A black graduation is not a “hold your applause until the end” kind of ceremony, like my high school or most college graduations. The theater was swallowed up by “Amen”s and shouts of “That’s right!” from everyone else in the audience. It was reminiscent of what you might hear at a Sunday morning church service.

It’s a ceremony full of emotion and an exchange of wisdom from one generation to the next. And it’s an intimate occasion, where we talk about the issues we’re going to encounter as we delve into the real world. We receive much-needed advice from faculty members of color.

One highlight for me was listening to the words of Drexel’s Vice President and Dean of Student Life, Dr. Subir Sahu. He talked about the struggles people of color face at predominantly white institutions, like lack of representation, misrepresentation, being ignored, and feeling unsupported and voiceless.

The ceremony concluded with each graduate going through a rite of passage. The drums began again, as one by one, our shoulders were draped with kente cloth stoles. Pride beamed from every one of us. Some graduates danced across the stage, while others crossed their arms over their chest in a “Wakanda Forever” salute.

When my name was called, I heard the crowd erupt in applause. Even people I didn’t know were cheering like crazy for me. I felt loved. I felt acknowledged.

Some people might wonder why black Americans ask for inclusion and desegregation but then hold their own graduation ceremonies. The answer is simple: We still don’t feel recognized.

Drexel University students William Washington, Ikenna Njoku, and Chè Benjamin. Photo courtesy of Chè Benjamin

It pained me to see black graduates at the University of Florida shoved and rushed off stage during one of the biggest moments in their lives. For black people, graduating from college is a big deal. It’s hard enough for us to even stay in school so all the blood, sweat and tears should feel worth it the minute you walk across that stage. No one deserves to have that moment taken away and devalued.

Having gone through black graduation myself, I feel transformed.

Even for a short while, participating in a black graduation unifies us. It gives a sense of community and belonging that black people are so often searching for in today’s society. I feel like I need every graduating black man and woman to feel what I felt at my school’s ceremony.

We just want to feel recognized and have the same opportunities as everybody else. Is that too much to ask?

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