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Ceremony For Black Grads 'Steeped In Our Tradition'

Dusty Rhodes/NPR Illinois

Commencement ceremonies took place on many college campuses this past weekend, including the University of Illinois, where a popular TV star spoke to graduates.

But the Black Congratulatory ceremony at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana was particularly unique. 

Huff Hall, on the campus of the flagship Illinois university, holds about four thousand people, and it's nearly full. The air conditioner can't compete with the heat generated by so many spectacularly dressed parents, grandparents, friends and cousins. By the  time the ceremony ends, moms and aunties will have traded their pretty pumps for flats, and the little kids will have dozed off in their daddy's arms. That's what this ceremony has in common with the others.

You can hear what's different when the lights dim and the graduates process in.

Instead of “Pomp and Circumstance,” these graduates enter the hall to the strains of Donny Hathaway singing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” This is the Black Congratulatory, a tradition that dates back almost 40 years on a campus where African-Americans represent just five percent of the student population.

Marielle Dickens, graduating with a double major in psychology and communications, is near the front of the procession. She's been selected to give a speech, so she has earned a seat on the stage. This particular graduation ceremony is something she's been anticipating ever since she attended Black Congratulatory a few years ago.

"I don’t know how to explain it," she says. "It was ... so welcoming, so love, so much of a family-type atmosphere. And it made me look forward to graduate a lot more."

Dashawn Julion, graduating with a degree in technical systems management, skipped the general commencement due to his busy schedule, but he told his mom to be in her seat by 7 p.m. for Black Congratulatory.

"Black Congratulatory — it's a special thing for many of us in the African-American community for many reasons, but mainly because we do attend a predominantly white institution," he said, "so being able to be recognized for being an African-American student here is something special."

His mother, Leisha Julion, was impressed by the event. "The regular graduation, you really don't know how many blacks are graduating, but when they have their own, you're like wow, it was a lot!” she said. “So it makes everyone in here proud."

After all the graduates have entered the hall, everyone stands to sing the "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the Negro National Anthem that is. All three verses.

Ashley Davis, an assistant director of the U of I African American Cultural Center, is in charge of Black Congratulatory.

"The purpose of it is to have a ceremony that is steeped in our tradition, so that people don't have to feel uncomfortable,” she said. “The ability to celebrate each other in the ways that we celebrate each other is important."?

Credit Dusty Rhodes/NPR Illinois
Marielle Dickens (right) poses with one of her sorority sisters as graduates gather for UIUC's Black Congratulatory ceremony. In her speech to grads, she said, "It's better to be prepared and not have an opportunity than to have an opportunity and not be prepared."

What does that mean? For starters, it means that when Dickens delivers her speech, even though the sound system is muddy, everyone in the hall understands when she says:

"So many times we have been told no, we're not good enough. ‘This may not be an option for you.’ And ‘Let's not aim too high.’ " It means fraternity and sorority members can dance as they cross the stage. And it means every "first" or milestone accomplishment — like the first U of I black chancellorfirst black football coach, and the Student Senate's fourth black president — will be announced and applauded.

And, as Leisha Julion points out, it also means that this particular ceremony has a larger purpose than just launching these students into the next chapter of their lives.

"Like Dashawn, he'll reach back for his brother and make sure he makes it through. You can do it. If I can do it, you can do it,” she says. “So just reach your hand back and grab the next person forward."?