Sunday, May 24, 2009

Why a Black Graduation?

Saturday I attended the first Black Graduation for students of African descent in the Peralta Community College District which consists of four campuses, College of Alameda, Berkeley City College, Laney College and Merritt Colleges (my employer) in Oakland. Immediately when it was announced that there would be such an event, there were naysayers throughout the District. You heard things like “Why a Black graduation?” “Why are we segregating ourselves?” And this was coming from black folk.

Now, I have to admit, my reaction was one of hmmm, isn’t Merritt College and our graduations already predominately black? I mean, we were able to obtain a federal grant to improve black male retention based on our more than 50% black population. We have long heard complaints that our guest speakers at past graduations are almost always black—this year we are having the honorable Congresswomen Barbara Lee-- as well as the entertainment. And we have consistently had a black president for the past twelve years. But, I decided to brush the chatter aside and support those who initiated the idea and especially our students. Dr. Van Hook, an African American studies instructor at Merritt and Laney and his wife, Patricia Van Hook, took this on and my hats are off to them. They pulled it off and did a fabulous job. The well-planned and organized graduation was held at the North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church where Dr. Van Hook holds services.

Why a Black Graduation? It was clear to me the moment I walked through the church vestibule. First, the fact that it was being held at a church was telling in itself. As a public college district, Peralta adheres to the separation of church and state mandate. But the house of worship is a vital part of the African American community, no matter what religion is practiced. Celebrating our successes and accomplishments goes hand in hand with giving honor and praise to a higher power. To God be the glory. There was a prayer by Rev. Rutledge, the church pastor after opening greetings. The tune, There’s a Sweet Spirit in this Place today kept going through my head. This is why.

Why a Black graduation? A former, highly esteemed Black studies instructor, Dr. Cecelia Arrington, was honored as well as the first Black chancellor of the Peralta College District, Dr. Donald Godbold, and the first Black Trustee, Dr. Booker Jackson Jr. Jason Hodge, a former Oakland school board member, and his son called on the ancestors with their drums and libation ceremony. This is why. The graduating students ranging from ages early 20s to 60s who so desired, felt free in expressing their gratitude for their blessings. And they did so as they introduced themselves, draped in their beautiful Kente cloth. They announced their degrees received and thanked those who encouraged them on their journey. That is why.

Why? Because we had a keynote speaker, Davey D, radio commentator, journalist and community activist who felt free to speak truth to power where the audience could relate and receive. Because as a people, we have an oral tradition; we felt free in agreeing with the various speakers in a call and response format that dates back to Africa. Because every ethnicity has their traditions and celebrations and this is our way or as the kids say, this is how we roll. Because the sense of pride and joy on the faces of the family of the graduates were evident at hearing Dr. Siri Brown juxtapose the scholars of ancient Africa and the scholars of African descent today. That is why there is a Black Graduation.



Niambi Brown Davis said...

What a wonderful post! I felt the spirit of the event in your words. IMHO there is a real difference in across-the-board self-segregation and celebration.

Lena said...

I loved this post! I would have loved to attend this graduation ceremony! Now I know what to say to people that ask me the question, "Why a black graduation?"

Beverly said...

I enjoyed your comments. As always, they are very thoughtful. As you mentioned this was a positive celebration of how we roll.
Another example of Yes We Can and Yes We Did.

Yasmin said...

Wonderful review and excellent commentary...thanks so much for I KNOW. ;)

Nodie said...

Dera, how exciting that was. I worked with Peralta
for 36 years and the whole time I worked at the college there was no
black graduation. You say
why a black graduation, well I will tell you why.
To be able to express your
accomplishments in your own style in your own culture. I will see if my sister will blog you and tell her story of the black graduations she has attended at UC Berkeley.
She told me that one year they even played James Brown "I'm Black and I'm
Proud". I laughed, but at the same time I said how wonderful it is to be able to express your accomplishments in your own way. I say, "SAY IT LOUD!


JC Martin said...

This is a wonderful celebration. I'm glad you were able to be there and to shed light for those who may not understand the significance of such a day. I appreciate you sharing this, especially the ages of the graduates. It's another confirmation that attending college in my 30s is a good thing. If people order than me can succeed so can I.

Dera Williams said...

Thanks Niambi. It was special
I'm glad you were able to get it Lena. Wish you were here also.
Yes Beverly, the spirit of this is our time was all over the place.

Yes, now we all know.

Thanks Nodie. It was long overdue. I have attended a UC Berkeley Black graduation and it was very special.

Thanks Jennifer. It was so encouraging to see so many older students. It is never too late.

Angelia... said...

So beautifully put, and I totally understand...


'Cilla said...

WOW!! Wonderful post Dera. makes me want to return to school.. :-)

Lamar said...

Wonderful commentary. I feel I missed an event that needed to be experienced. Thank you for sharing.

doris said...

I loved this post too. I too was questioning what the purpose of a black only graduation was. When you mentioned being able to “Celebrating our successes and accomplishments goes hand in hand with giving honor and praise to a higher power. To God be the glory." For years churches have held separate ceremonies acknowledging the educational accomplishments of its attendees. Thank you for taking time to share your experience.

Phyllis said...

Apologies for the delayed response -- it's been a rough few months; but I wanted to comment. I absolutely loved this post! I'm glad to see a new tradition initiated -- I'm sure the students felt honored and will remember and treasure those moments forever!

Dera Williams said...

Thanks Phyllis for your comments. I appreciate your support whenever.