A number of Black students at Harvard University are gearing up for a first-of-its-kind event for this year’s graduation: an all-Black commencement ceremony.
Dubbed Black Commencement 2017 by its student organizers, the event will be the Ivy League institution’s first university-wide graduation ceremony celebrating students of the African Diaspora. Taking place on May 23, it is set to welcome more than 700 guests.
The ceremony will highlight the perseverance and achievements of Black students, particularly in a college environment where minorities are underrepresented. However, the event is not exclusive; according to The Boston Globe, students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds may attend, and Black students participating will also attend Harvard’s official commencement ceremony on May 25.
Michael Huggins, president of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, explained that the commencement ceremony is meant to highlight “Black excellence” and “Black brilliance,” not to segregate non-Black Harvard University graduates.
“Too often at Harvard, there is not cross-discipline contact between Black students,” he said. “So it can feel like you are the only person of color. This is a chance to reaffirm for each other that we enter the work world with a network of supporters standing with us. We are all partners.”
Huggins will graduate alongside his colleagues with a master’s degree in public policy.
Student organizers raised more than $27,000 to plan Black Commencement 2017 and the subsequent reception. While this year’s event will include mostly graduate students, the planning group is hoping to expand the graduation celebrate to include undergraduates next year.
Over the past few years, college campuses across the nation have confronted events and histories of racism and micro aggressive behavior.
Last fall, Georgetown University addressed its own history and involvement with slavery. In 1838, the Catholic-Jesuit institution’s early presidents organized the sale of 272 slaves to help finance its operations and ward off debt. In response to this history, Georgetown has renamed two buildings that formerly honored the two university presidents involved in the slave trade, and has begun planning the establishment of an institute for racial justice and slavery, memory and reconciliation.
Following the April election of the Taylor Dumpson as American University’s first Black female student body president, bananas hanging from nooses began appearing around campus. Dumpson, who is a member of the historically Black Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., was the target of the incident, as the bananas had “AKA” and “Harambe Bait” written on them.
“American University will not allow any member of our community to be intimidated and we will not be discouraged,” university spokesperson Teresa Flannery stated. “I hope you will stand with Taylor and me and continue to stand up for our values.” The FBI is currently working with the university to investigate the incident.
Nationwide, college graduation rates hover around 40 percent, with Harvard’s average reaching 96 percent for Black undergraduate students completing their degree within six years. Nevertheless, Black student graduation rates trail those of White students across all public, four-year institutions.
“There is a legacy of slavery, epistemic racism and colonization at Harvard, which was an institution founded to train rising imperialist leaders,” said Courtney Woods, student organizer for Harvard’s Black Commencement 2017 ceremony, who will be graduating with a master’s degree in education policy and management. “This is a history that we are reclaiming.”