On Mother’s Day weekend, I attended the commencement ceremonies at Howard University. I was there to witness the graduations of my twin godchildren, Cecil Andrew and Cecily Anastasia Duffie. Cecil received his doctorate in philosophy, and Cecily received a master’s in literature. Because of the number of graduates, the university usually hosts several graduation ceremonies. I attended every one of them.
Meanwhile, back home, another godson, David King Jr., received his master’s in social work from Barry University.
It was, indeed, a weekend to celebrate.
In Washington, D. C., as I sat, eagerly awaiting the start of one of the ceremonies, the sounds of drumming penetrated my thoughts. The faculty and the graduates were being led into the hall to the ancient, celebratory sounds of African drumming! I could hardly contain my excitement, that this modern-day university would include the traditions of our culture in its graduation ceremony.
The drumming was not the only tradition particular to African Americans that was a part of the commencement ceremonies. There was the invocation (prayer), and the Negro national anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”), the Negro spiritual “Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Aroun’” that was led by soprano soloist Melissa Constantin, and the classic Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from Christ on the Mount of Olives, performed by the Howard University choir and orchestra, conducted by Dr. Eric O. Poole. Then there was the commencement speech, given this year by award-winning actor and alumna Taraji P. Henson.
I sat prayerfully as the commencement got underway. I looked at the sea of faces — the graduates — most of them Black like me, and I was overwhelmed with joy.
This was Howard’s 154th commencement convocation. Not too many years ago, it was unusual to see so many Blacks graduating from college. We felt blessed if we were able to get a high school diploma.
But that was then. I looked around, surveying the faces of the graduates — among them was award-wining actor Anthony Anderson — and I thought, “This is now!”
As I watched the graduates walk across the stage to receive their degrees, I knew that each of them had a story to tell. I knew that it had not been easy for many of them to get to this day. There were tears of joy and loud shouts as the graduates’ names were called.
I remembered the testimonies of three graduates at the annual prayer breakfast, held the day before. One young woman told of her struggles with self-esteem after she had been sexually assaulted. She praised the faculty for wrapping their arms around her, helping her find her way, after she had lost her scholarship. And encouraging her to have faith that the scholarship would be reinstated. And it was.
I thought of my godson David, who succeeded with the help of scholarships and part-time jobs, and his single mother Lagarunda “Vickie” King, who literally prayed him through to this day. The warmth of the stories and the triumphant endings did not surprise me.
As a Black American who grew up attending segregated schools, many of us could only dream of attending college. So, our high school graduation ceremonies were always special — with great music (mostly the classics), sometimes a short dramatic skit, and always the invocation. The commencement speech was the icing on the cake.
As I sat in one of Howard’s ceremonies, looking at the program, I mused on how far we have come from the days when the entire neighborhood turned out as one of its children graduated from high school.
And if perchance they went off to college, the student could often look forward to the letters from home with the two or three dollars inside. Perhaps it would be from Ms. Lillie Mae, who lived down the street, and who took in washing to help support her family. Yet she didn’t think it robbery to slip “a little piece of change” in an envelope to her help her favorite college student. It was the way The Village operated back then.
So, as I thought about the testimonies I heard at the prayer breakfast, I thought about all the Ms. Lillie Mae’s, who had help one of these graduates make it to this day. I thought about the student whose counselor told him that he wasn’t college material. Still, he had the gumption to use the put-down as a rung on his ladder to success. And I thought about the parents of many of the graduates. Some of them had to work several jobs to be able to help their children make it to this day.
Graduation is a rite of passage. It is a great big step into the next level of the lives of the graduates. Right now, the outside world looks murky. There are wars, waging, and unrest in our nation, with steps being taken to carry our nations back into some of its darkest times — back to when we were a separate and unequal nation. Indeed, these graduates are entering a world where the very democracy of our country is at stake. And I am sorry that we couldn’t have presented them with a better and brighter world.
I scanned the faces of the smiling graduates. Do they know the load they must carry to help keep America free? Do they know how hard it will be to reach out to their neighborhoods and pull another youth out of the dust of street violence and give them hope? There is much work to do, and these graduates and those around the country must hit the ground running, so to speak. Their work is already cut out for them. Yet, their faces shine with hope.
So, as I left the venue along with the other smiling parents and friends of the graduates, I am humming to myself,
“… Don’t you let nobody turn you aroun’ … turn you aroun’… turn you aroun’… Don’t you let nobody turn you aroun’…”
And I am encouraged that these 2022 graduates won’t.
Bea Hines can be reached at Bea.Hines@gmail.com