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Commencement

“Living Underwater”: Harvard’s Inaugural Black Commencement

5.23.17

Students wait to receive their stoles at Black Commencement.

Photograph by Stu Rosner


Students wait to receive their stoles at Black Commencement.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

The Black Graduate Student Alliance held its inaugural Black Commencement at the Law School’s Holmes Field this morning, a ceremony honoring black graduates from across Harvard’s graduate schools. There was no headline speaker; instead, the event featured four student orators, each reflecting a different dimension of the black student experience. Near the end of the ceremony, the deans of each school presented their graduates with stoles of bright kente, a fabric of interwoven geometric patterns from west Africa, as they walked across the stage in front of the Law School library. By far the largest representation came from the Law School: dean Martha Minow embraced dozens of J.D. students as they came to accept their stoles. 


Duwain Pinder
Photograph by Stu Rosner

The occasion felt both solemn and joyful: “Three weeks before my first day at Harvard, I learned of the murder of Michael Brown. Months later, I listened as my professor struggled to explain the public policy that allowed his murderer to walk free,” began Duwain Pinder, who will graduate with a joint M.B.A.-M.P.P. “And the overwhelming question during this first year at Harvard was how I could survive in a world that seems not to value my life.” Kyrah Malika Daniels, who has earned a Ph.D. in African and African American studies, spoke about bridging the gaps between life in the academy and at home: “Living underwater is no small feat, and for many of us following our matriculation from Harvard, we will forever be amphibious, able to speak both languages of ocean and land, languages of newly acquired privilege as well as familiar cultural depths.”

This first Black Commencement drew national attention when it was announced earlier this month—some if it negative, suggesting that it represented a form of segregation or racial resentment. Segregation could not have been a less fitting analogy. Today’s attendees, friends and family members of all races, watched as students received their stoles, an occasion to reflect on the uniqueness of the black student experience and to mark students’ contributions to, not their separateness from, the academic community. The ceremony was organized against a backdrop of rewened racial-justice activism at Harvard and in the nation in general: Last year, under pressure from students, the law school abandoned its official seal because it represented the crest of a slave-owning family, and, later, President Drew Faust publicly recognized Harvard’s links to slavery

Pinder urged his audience not to allow their experiences at Harvard to be deployed against African Americans who have not reached the same level of achievement. “They want our Harvard crest to become a symbol of how we made it and others didn’t. They will want to use us as exceptions to their rule. They will try to craft our stories as examples of the benefits of personal responsibility. As proof that the American dream exists for all rather than just a select few,” he said. “But we know better….We are only a fraction of the black brilliance that lies under the surface.” 

“I’ve grown accustomed to being one of the few black people in predominantly white spaces,” he continued. “And that can be dangerous because false narratives of quotas can make us believe that there is only one slot for a successful black person.” He called on graduates to view their Commencement as a moment of unity rather than a zero-sum competition: “We cannot and should not support this narrative. This is a tool to limit our opportunities and cause us to tear each other down.”


Terrance Rogers
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Terrance Rogers, also an M.B.A. candidate, made little mention of race, speaking instead of a broader breakdown of economic certainty in the United States, likening it to the Great Fire of Rome under Emperor Nero: “We see the fire that surrounds us, and we are uniquely positioned to help put it out. So I challenge you. Let’s pick up a bucket of water and get to work.” He recalled the day that his mother’s job of more than 20 years was outsourced. “The first thing I noticed was the shame and brokenness in my mother eyes. Her expression was foreign to me. Her eyes red, her face damp….This was my first exposure to capitalism,” he said. “It was not my friend.” 


Kyrah Malika Daniels
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Daniels described her time as a doctoral student as a journey of three chapters: the first few years, when students take courses as “knowledge seekers”; the next chapter, as teaching fellows or “knowledge bearers”; and the final chapter, as “knowledge contributors” who add their ideas to the body of human knowledge: “I applaud the work of my colleagues who examine how other institutions can better serve our black communities—whether investigating the challenges of the education system or the failures of the criminal-justice system. Our frustration is that these institutions have not been designed for us, and I am honored to graduate alongside professionals, scholars, activists, and artists working to change this.”


Courtney Woods
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Courtney Woods, an Education School graduate, traced the history of her family from Jamaica, where her father was born, to Michigan, where she was the first in her family to attend college, to Harvard, where, she urged her peers, they now bear the responsibilities of representation. “We are graduating from Harvard,” she said. “Not as saviors—the people we love don’t need to be saved. But they do need to see each of us walk across this stage, for as we do, we express more boldly than words can that they can too.”  

Following the speeches, Karen Jackson-Weaver, senior associate dean of degree programs at the Harvard Kennedy School, presented Toni Morgan, Ed.M. ’16, and Aaron Bray, J.D. ’16, the Harvard Black Legacy Award, a new honor given to “recent Harvard alumni who have committed themselves to the pursuit of social equity” and “have expanded and created opportunities for communities that represent the Africa diaspora around the world.” An additional award, not listed on the program, was presented by surprise to the master of ceremonies, Lisa Coleman, the University’s chief diversity officer and an assistant to President Faust, in recognition of her “exemplary service to the Harvard community.” 

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