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Harvard Black Commencement is a chance to celebrate students' families, organizers say

Student organizers helped put together Harvard's first universitywide grad school Black Commencement, to take place May 23.

Kristin Turner knows that her graduation from Harvard University will be an exciting, emotional moment not just for her, but for her entire family — and luckily, they’ll get the chance to see her cross the stage twice.

Two days before the school’s official commencement, Turner will participate in Harvard’s first universitywide Black Commencement for graduate students.

Turner, a Harvard Law School student and president of the Harvard Black Law Students Association, helped organize the event, called Black Commencement 2017.

“It’s an opportunity to create space for typically underrepresented students who have definitely achieved so many things,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate ourselves while paying homage to the village that contributed to our success.”

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That sentiment, that it "takes a village," is important for Turner to acknowledge. Turner’s parents, grandparents, uncle, cousin and friends from high school are heading to Cambridge early to attend the Black Commencement.

The event on May 23 may even be more emotional and meaningful than Harvard’s 366th Commencement on May 25, she said, because it’s truly an event for her family.

“For the older members of our family, there’s this idea of having a lineage that connects themselves to slaves, but also having descendants now coming out of Harvard,” she said. “That’s more meaningful than we can really grasp in words.”

The event will start with a spoken-word performance and will feature four student keynotes, two Harvard Black Legacy Awards and a stoling ceremony, where students will walk across the stage, shake hands with their school’s dean and don a stole made of African kente cloth.

“The African kente cloth is meant to be a physical representation of our shared heritage, shared victories and of our community we’re hoping to build as black Harvard professionals and black Harvard alumni,” said Courtney Woods, another organizer and one of the keynote speakers.

“The cloth is a way to honor those who couldn't be here with us but made us being here possible,” she added.

Though this event is a first for Harvard grad schools, it’s not a new concept. Harvard College has had a black commencement in the past, and black ceremonies have been held at Stanford University, University of Washington and more.

Turner said that she had what was called a “black grad” when she got her undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California, so it just made sense to have one for graduate school.

Still, as news of the ceremony has spread, there’s been some backlash. Comments on articles asked, "What if white students did this?" A Washington Times editorial called it a “racially segregated” ceremony.

But organizers assure it’s not meant to be separatist. “It was never created to be exclusionary,” Turner said. “If anything, it was created to fill a gap that we saw and to be as inclusive as possible.”

More than 200 students and about 800 guests are expected at Black Commencement, which will be held at Harvard Law School’s Holmes Field. That includes students, staff and faculty who aren’t black, Woods said, who wanted to show their support. The university’s administration was very helpful, organizers said, especially Lisa Coleman, Harvard’s chief diversity officer.

“We definitely want to note that all are welcome to attend the ceremony, whether student, staff faculty member, fellow, everyone,” Woods said. “Maybe you don't identify with African diaspora, maybe you don't understand, but you’re coming for the opportunity to understand and to share with us this moment of glory.” 

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