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Sandy Banks

Black Grad Night Is About Pride, Not Separatism

June 02, 2002|Sandy Banks

The young man across the banquet table looked to be about 13, eyes serious behind wire-rimmed glasses as he sat stiffly in suit and tie on an evening when most boys his age were probably kicking back, watching the Laker game on TV.

Flanked by his grandparents, he watched an unlikely procession of graduating college students strutting across the stage collecting accolades.

There was the young woman who thanked her mother and infant son, the baby born during her senior year. The young man whose journey through college was interrupted by a prison term but who returned to graduate cum laude. The middle-aged woman who squeezed her classes in around the needs of her kids, and stuck it out for 15 years.

They were honored for grades, leadership, community service. But the real stars of the evening were not on the dais at the Black Grad Dinner preceding the Cal State Long Beach commencement, but in the seats around me at the banquet tables.

"Your family, your community is at the center of this night," said our host, Maulana Karenga, head of the university's black studies department and creator of the holiday Kwanzaa. "Your accomplishments are wonderful, and we are very proud of you. But you must be grateful to them, as well."

And as the boy across from me rose to applaud, he studied the face of his grandfather, whose eyes glowed with pride, or maybe tears.

Some might say that these special-interest ceremonies have proliferated to the point that they cease to be special.

Although most students also participate in campus-wide ceremonies, some argue that the number of private celebrations--for example, to honor graduates who are black, gay, Iranian or in ROTC--are taking away the sense of unity that used to accompany graduation.

They promote separatism, critics say; they encourage Balkanization. Some bristle at the sight of African kente cloth and Mexican flags, at the sound of the Filipino national anthem, at gay students' declarations of affection.

"I understand that people doubt the necessity of events such as these," says USC junior Kelechi Okoro, who coordinated USC's black graduation ceremony this year. "But they're welcome to come to see for themselves."

The cultural ceremonies, said Karenga, "are not exclusive events, but inclusive events that honor the families, the friends and community that have supported these young people. A lot of these students are the first in their families to graduate and have persevered despite overwhelming obstacles."

It is easy to feel lost in a crowd of thousands--which is the size of graduating classes at large universities.

At private schools such as USC, there is "the struggle of going through four or five years being the only African American in your classes," Okoro says. "Every student has that experience, and it can be tough. Our fellow graduates, and our families and friends, have a better understanding of what it's taken for us to reach graduation."

And for every round of applause for a graduate, there is a chorus of "thank you" for a family.

"No matter how intelligent you may think you are, how hard you work, how diligent you are, how creative you may be, none of us would be here had it not been for the sacrifices and struggles of our families. This event is as much a time to acknowledge and thank them as it is to congratulate ourselves for our achievements."

Those words are from the speech my brother gave at his own black grad dinner 15 years ago at Stanford University. My father, then terminally ill, had checked out of the hospital in Ohio and traveled 3,000 miles for what he would later say was the proudest moment of his life.

I wish that all those who have complained about the divisiveness of special celebrations could have felt the pride and power in that room, as men and women who cleaned toilets and picked cotton and hauled garbage celebrated with sons and daughters who would become doctors and lawyers and university professors.

And I wonder why no one calls it balkanization when we separate inmates in jail by race, or stack honors classes with smart, white kids while bright but unmotivated black kids fail.

Is it balkanization to remind young people that their success is built on the sacrifices of previous generations? Whom does it threaten when we encourage them to reach back and mentor others, like the young man sitting at my dinner table with his grandparents? Is it disruptive to demonstrate that a mistake need not derail a dream, that your past need not limit your future, that perseverance is your legacy?

There were no mortarboards tossed toward the sky at last weekend's black graduation. But there were countless dreams unleashed, as hope marched forward on strong black shoulders.

*

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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