Loud Cheers, No Arrests & Cultural Celebration: The Need for Black Graduation Ceremonies

June 12, 2012  |  

This past weekend my baby sister graduated…twice. She earned one degree but had two ceremonies. She had a traditional ceremony, in an arena with thousands of other graduates where we had to squint to see her in the mass of marching black robes. We sat through two hours of [occasionally boring] pomp and circumstance until they called her name and she got her three seconds of shine. If we blinked a millisecond too long or let our cheers distract us, we would’ve missed the opportunity to capture this wonderful moment on film.

If my sister’s traditional graduation ceremony left a little to be desired, my family wasn’t fazed because the night before we attended Tyehimba. Tyehimba, a Nigerian word that means “We are a Nation,” was the University of Cincinnati’s way of celebrating the school’s black graduates. I had heard about black graduations before but being that they weren’t offered at my school, I never had the chance to attend one. I was excited but my 92 year old grandfather needed an explanation. Was this segregation or what? Not really. Sure the ceremony was specifically for black students but it was optional and they weren’t banned from attending their traditional commencements. I don’t think my grandfather was a believer until he got to sit and experience it firsthand.

Instead of the sterile march down the aisle to the same graduation song institutions have been playing for centuries, my sister and her fellow graduates walked down the aisles, waving red, green and black flags to the song “The Drum (Africa to America)” by Sounds of Blackness. They started the ceremony with libations, acknowledging fallen civil rights leaders and other figures in black history, including Tupac Skakur. When it was time for the ceremony to begin they asked the oldest person in the audience to provide their blessing. And when they called the names of the graduates, the students could take all the time they wanted dancing, hopping, lining,  strolling or skating across a stage lined with black faculty members who celebrated with them. And if that weren’t enough, after the dancing, the students posed with the master of ceremonies, a man decked in traditional African garb holding a staff, as he asked the students where their families were so they could make eye contact and allow their relatives time to get a proper picture.

When my sister looked out into the audience and found my grandfather, he was standing, arms raised above his head, waving at his granddaughter, a granddaughter who’d been afforded the opportunity to attain the education he never received.

To me, the debate about whether or not families should be able to cheer as their graduates walk across the stage is a ridiculous one, especially for black people. When I think about the minutes, hours, days and months college students spend studying, the personal insight we gained as undergrads and the thousands of dollars paid out of pocket, through work study, loans or the government to get an individual through school, I can’t think of a more appropriate response than shouting and hollering.

When you combine that universal experience with the fact that blacks in this country have been denied educational opportunities for centuries, are more likely to experience financial hardships in college and may have to deal with prejudices, or flat out racism in institutions of higher learning, these universities are lucky black graduates don’t do Holy Ghost dances across the stage while their family members run laps around the arena. If anybody has something special to celebrate at graduation, it’s black folk.

You never know what it takes for someone to achieve a goal, what obstacles they may have had to overcome. So, it’s only right that after students have paid their dues, financial and otherwise, that they, and the families that helped them get to this point, be allowed this time of celebration without fear of having their diplomas withheld or being arrested.

Since predominately white or mainstream institutions are making it crystal clear that jubilation will not be tolerated at their commencement ceremonies, it might not be a bad idea for them to make provisions for blacks, and other groups who may want to take time to honor their graduates, to have their own separate, more personable, more celebratory commencements because after all some of us have been through, we deserve it.

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