By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS JUNE 2, 2017, New York Times [original article contains links]; see also.
Image from article, with caption: At Harvard's first commencement for black graduate students, a speaker declared, “We have endured the constant questioning of our legitimacy and our capacity, and yet here we are.”
[JB note: Below in the article: "The alternative ceremonies at Harvard had
printed programs, and incorporated the pageantry, ritual and solemnity of
traditional commencements, though without the diplomas, which were
reserved for the official university commencement."]
Looking out over a sea of people in Harvard Yard last week, Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook’s chief executive and one of Harvard’s most famous dropouts, told
this year’s graduating class that it was living in an unstable time, when the
defining struggle was “against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism
Two days earlier, another end-of-year ceremony had taken place, just a short
walk away on a field outside the law school library. It was Harvard’s first
commencement for black graduate students, and many of the speakers talked about
a different, more personal kind of struggle, the struggle to be black at Harvard.
“We have endured the constant questioning of our legitimacy and our capacity,
and yet here we are,” Duwain Pinder, a master’s degree candidate in business and
public policy, told the cheering crowd of several hundred people in a keynote speech.
From events once cobbled together on shoestring budgets and hidden in back
rooms, alternative commencements like the one held at Harvard have become more
mainstream, more openly embraced by universities and more common than ever
This spring, tiny Emory and Henry College in Virginia held its first “Inclusion and
Diversity Year-End Ceremonies.” The University of Delaware joined a growing list of
colleges with “Lavender” graduations for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
students. At Columbia, students who were the first in their families to graduate from
college attended the inaugural “First-Generation Graduation,” with inspirational
speeches, a procession and the awarding of torch pins.
Some of the ceremonies have also taken on a sharper edge, with speakers
adding an activist overlay to the more traditional sentiments about proud families
and bright futures.
After Columbia’s ceremony, Lizzette Delgadillo said she spoke about the pain of
“impostor syndrome — feeling alone when it feels like everybody else on campus just
knows what to do and you don’t,” and of how important it was to have the support of
other first-generation students.
Ms. Delgadillo, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering,
had lobbied for the event for three years, as a member of a group called the First-Generation
“The current political climate definitely pushed this initiative to come to
fruition,” [JB emphasis] said Ms. Delgadillo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants living
in Los Angeles.
Participants say the ceremonies are a way of celebrating their shared experience
as a group, and not a rejection of official college graduations, which they also attend.
Depending on one’s point of view, the ceremonies may also be reinforcing an image
of the 21st-century campus as an incubator for identity politics.
“It’s not easy being a student, being a student anywhere, but especially at a place
like Harvard,” Ward Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute and a
former University of California regent who campaigned against racial preference in
admissions, said sympathetically.
But events like black commencements, he continued, serve only to “amplify”
racial differences. “College is the place where we should be teaching and preaching
the view that you’re an individual, and choose your associates to be based on other
factors rather than skin color,” he said.
“Think about it,” Mr. Connerly added. “These kids went to Harvard, and they
less than anyone in our society should worry about feeling welcome and finding
comfort zones. They don’t need that.”
The alternative ceremonies at Harvard had printed programs, and incorporated
the pageantry, ritual and solemnity of traditional commencements, though without
the diplomas, which were reserved for the official university commencement.
A few hours after the new “Harvard University Black Commencement” for the
graduate schools, including the prestigious law, divinity, business, government and
medical schools, about 120 students attended the third annual “Latinx”
commencement. In the cavernous basement of a science building, where an animal
skeleton dangled overhead and Latin music played, students received stoles with the
words “Clase Del 2017” woven into them, while siblings devoured chocolate
Black undergraduates held a separate event that night amid the polished pews
and Greek columns of Memorial Church, Harvard’s spiritual center and the
backdrop for Mr. Zuckerberg’s address.
While Mr. Zuckerberg’s speech was broadcast live and received thousands of
complimentary comments on Facebook, the black ceremony was relatively small and
more intimate, and seemed invisible to scores of classmates noshing on sliders and
beer at a white tent nearby, part of the broader commencement week revelry.
The ceremony was open to all students, though virtually everyone who attended
was black, and not all black students attended.
About 80 black graduates formed a procession to organ music, received kente-cloth
stoles, listened to a classmate play Bach on cello and sang “Lift Every Voice and
“For me, the black community is a home away from home,” Olivia Castor, a
student speaker from Spring Valley, N.Y., who earned a bachelor’s degree in social
studies and African-American studies, said exuberantly.
“It’s where I spent most of my time, where I found my closest friends and, more
importantly, where I’ve learned the most important lessons during my time here,”
she went on. “So thank you, thank you for being beautiful, brilliant and blackety-black-black.”
Brandon M. Terry, the faculty speaker, joked that Harvard College’s black
graduation had become more mainstream since he graduated in 2005.
“This setup already has us beat,” he said. “We were in one of the old Harvard
buildings across campus. We had no air-conditioning, and some folding chairs on
Professor Terry suggested that the mood was different as well.
“You began college just weeks after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the
callous killing of Trayvon Martin,” Professor Terry, an assistant professor of African
and African-American studies and social studies, said in his address.
“You were teenagers, like Michael Brown when he was subjected to the
Sophoclean indignity of being shot dead and left in the blazing sun. Your world was
shaped in indelible ways by these deaths and others like them, and many of you
courageously took to join one of the largest protest movements in decades to try to
wrest some semblance of justice from these tragedies.”
But like all the speakers, he spoke reverently of Harvard as an institution,
saying: “The dramatic privileges that you have and will continue to benefit from in
virtue of your association with this university are only worth the social cost if they
are to benefit people worse off than you.”
Bhekinkosi Sibanda, a first-generation Harvard student from Zimbabwe, said he
had been ambivalent at first about participating in the black graduation.
“In an attempt at inclusivity, we don’t want to end up introducing exclusivity,”
he said. “You don’t want to end up where this black commencement overshadows
the entire commencement of the school. You don’t want to blow away the glory.”
Then Mr. Sibanda remembered how a professor had asked if he wanted to drop
a class, when all he wanted was help. “It’s good to be able to take this time for
solidarity and identity,” he said, “to celebrate what we’ve achieved.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research