Graduation season brings me tremendous joy. I love seeing the various photos, video clips and stories of graduates who have overcome tremendous odds.
My inner crafting nerd marvels at the talent displayed on creatively decorated graduation caps. I look forward to hearing the commencement speeches given by celebrities, entrepreneurs and hardworking alumni. Graduations are a reminder that for many years, people of color were systematically kept out of institutions of higher learning. It’s why the traditions associated with HBCU graduations always captivate me.
Unfortunately, this year’s commencement season has been marked by institutional efforts to police how proud graduates mark the occasion. It reminded me that 20 years ago this week, I earned my first college degree.
Graduates of the University of Virginia (UVA) are very particular about language and tradition. We have grounds rather than a campus. We refer to students by their status (e.g. first-years, fourth-years) rather than the titles of freshman and senior. Long before tiki torch-wielding bigots descended upon Charlottesville, Wahoo Wah was the rallying cry that periodically rang out near my alma mater’s iconic Rotunda. Notable alums like Dawn Staley, Katie Couric, Leland Melvin and Chris Long shared the time-honored tradition of hanging out on the lawn, never the quad.
As the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college, I celebrated with gratitude and exuberance. I finished my time at UVA just three weeks after my beloved grandfather, Ted Louis Brown, suffered the first of what would become a series of heart attacks that would eventually claim his life. Defying his physician’s orders not to travel, my towering grandfather stood at the base of the lawn to see his first-born grandchild graduate. I keep a picture of him widely beaming as a reminder that no act of success in this life comes without the encouragement of people who often see more in us than we see in ourselves.
Twice a year for four years, he would pack his green conversion van with expert precision to transport my college essentials: halogen lamps; cases of ramen noodles; Bath and Body Works scented lotions; incense bearing names such as Egyptian Musk and Cool Breeze; and various black light posters purchased from the bookstore. Without fail, he would somehow convince the young men hanging out near the dorm to help him unload the van. Helping usually meant lugging the heavy items while he supervised from the side.
Together, he and my grandmother would always manage to slip money into my hands after a visit. My grandmother was a regal Southern woman who ensured that my wardrobe always matched the occasion and reminded me who I was and whose I was. With every conversation, I would make note of her class ring inscribed with “Amherst County Training School” rather than High School. Black students were trained to serve society. White students were educated to shape it. My aunts possessed the uncanny ability to place a phone call or send a greeting card when I needed it most. My great-uncle often volunteered to pick me up for a weekend respite from the stressors of being a first-generation college student that even my most well-meaning friends couldn’t understand.
Commencement provided a meaningful opportunity for my two younger sisters to see the power of higher education. They watched in awe of brown faces who looked like their own. Along with my younger cousins, they marveled at the parade of brightly colored stoles bearing organizational affiliations. They saw the importance of honor societies, civic organizations, fraternal groups and professional associations that paved the way for many graduates. Their curiosity piqued after seeing acronyms such as NSBE and BSA.
My village of play cousins and church members piled onto a chartered coach alongside the family of my high school math teacher to make the trek to the ceremony. There was a special sympatico that Machelle Penn, once my math teacher and forever my mentor, received her master’s degree as I received my bachelor’s. We proved that two brown girls from a small town called Lynchburg were the antithesis of Thomas Jefferson’s views of race codified in his Notes on the State of Virginia. We gathered in Jefferson’s Academic Village, fully knowing that the magnificent architectural structures had been built by enslaved Africans. We knew that we owed a debt to the ancestors who labored from can’t see, to can’t see so that we, their descendants, could achieve the freedom borne of education. I later learned that the dorm I resided in for two years was built over a burial ground for enslaved laborers. I lived on sacred ground enriched by martyrs of resistance and resilience.
Watching the tears well in my mother’s eyes was a humbling reminder of all that she sacrificed to make my graduation possible. The long nights spent counseling me through crippling self-doubt. The prayers that were never denied even when their manifestations were delayed. My mother was the one who pushed me beyond my comfort zone while teaching me that my college experience had to be more than just academics. What a revolutionary thought.
I walked into graduation flanked by my beautiful sorority sisters. With our pink and green stoles, balloons and lots of bubbles, we celebrated loudly and enthusiastically. We remembered the peers who closed doors, physically and metaphorically, because they didn’t think we were students. Our cheers grew louder as we remembered working through various acts of racial aggression like slurs written onto white boards, the desecration of flyers announcing cultural events and efforts to dilute or defund cultural centers. We rejoiced in acknowledging that the first wave of Black students at this public institution had graduated just two decades prior. In spite of our diverse backgrounds, we shared the mutual experience of having White classmates tell us we’d only been admitted due to affirmative action quotas. Making eye contact with my mother, I realized the accomplishment of graduating didn’t just belong to me. It belonged to her. It belonged to my village. Collectively, it belonged to the people who had prayed for us and spoken blessings into our lives.
We celebrated that in spite of racial battle fatigue and perpetual traumatic stress, we earned the right to “Wear the Honors of Honor.” We defied the collective indifference to ongoing challenges faced by people of color at predominantly White institutions. Students, faculty and staff who are rendered both invisible and hypervisible at once.
This is why students of color celebrate their commencements with such exuberance. There is not a single student of color that I have encountered in 15 years of teaching at the collegiate level who hasn’t been confronted by someone else’s limiting definition of where and how they are supposed to be. Even students who ardently work to distance themselves from a perceived racial affinity often find their existence questioned. We celebrate because we know the obstacles that were overcome. The behind-the-scenes fights that often dwarfed the public battles. The constant assaults on spirit and well-being just to simply be. We celebrate because we realize that resilience is built into our DNA even though that shouldn’t be a qualifying determinant of worth.
For this, we celebrate.
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science where she writes about American Politics, political psychology, and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.