Black Students at Harvard to Hold Their Own Commencement

Michael Levenson, Boston Globe, May 8, 2017

Two days before Courtney Woods dresses in a cap and gown for Harvard’s traditional commencement, she will don a stole made of African kente cloth and address the crowd at a somewhat different event: a graduation ceremony for black students.

Student organizers said the event, called Black Commencement 2017, is the first university wide ceremony for black students at Harvard and is designed to celebrate their unique struggles and achievements at an elite institution that has been grappling with its historic ties to slavery.

More than 170 students and 530 guests have signed up to attend the ceremony, which will be held May 23 at Holmes Field, near the Harvard Law School campus. The event will feature speeches by black students, alumni, and administrators.

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“I know this is exactly what students like me need to be inspired as we leave this place as emerging global leaders,” said Woods.

Similar ceremonies have been held for Harvard undergraduates as well as for students at Stanford, Columbia, Temple, and other campuses. On May 23, Harvard will also hold its third annual graduation ceremony for students of Latin American descent.

The ceremony for black students was created during a period of heightened activism related to racism on college campuses and in the country at large — from the Black Lives Matter movement to the increased focus on “micro-aggressions,” passing comments that seem to trivialize or marginalize the experiences of minorities.

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Last year, Drew Faust, university president, and Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who is a civil rights icon, unveiled a plaque commemorating four slaves who had been owned by Harvard presidents. The university also agreed to redesign the Harvard Law School shield, which was modeled on the family crest of an 18th-century slaveholder.

Woods said the black graduation ceremony will recognize that history, as well as the challenges that black students face today, including what she called a lack of social, emotional, and academic support. In 2015, 5 percent of the 7,595 degrees that Harvard awarded went to black students.

“Your parents, your colleagues, and those who are there in the audience are there to celebrate you because they know your common struggle,” Woods said. “There’s a shared history, there’s a shared struggle, there’s a shared identity.”

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