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Black graduates celebrate for ourselves, our families and the culture, so leave us alone

Our celebrations are ones of hope, release and immeasurable joy that sometimes can’t be contained

May 20, 2018, will be enshrined in my memory.

That’s the day I, along with more than 400 of my Morehouse brothers, start the rest of our lives. Families will cry, laugh, celebrate and everything in between. All the late nights, epic battles with financial aid and seemingly spiteful teachers have led to the very moment that our names are called. In the very brief interval of time it takes to walk across the graduation stage and shake hands with whoever is presiding, I expect to see strolls, hops, re-enactments of iconic memes and much more.

It’s a very brief yet monumental moment that belongs solely to the student.

Or at least it should.

For a number of black students who graduated from the University of Florida on May 7, this special moment was taken from them. After being assigned the job of “monitoring the flow of graduates,” a university faculty member took it upon himself to forcibly remove 21 primarily black graduates mid-celebration. White graduates, on the other hand, were permitted to do all sorts of gymnastics.

I was appalled. My heart immediately dropped because I knew how much preparation went into each celebration. The level of thought that college graduates have given to that moment is immeasurable.

For most of the class of 2018, graduation has been marked on our calendars for years. We’ve planned our outfits, decorated our caps and taken hundreds of graduation photos. The thought of receiving a diploma has been replayed thousands of times from the minute we stepped on campus; the celebration is just the cherry on top.

There’s a line in Jay Electronica’s “We Made It (Freestyle)” where he raps,

But they can’t relate to our struggle, my n—a
We came up from slavery

Based solely on the faculty member’s behavior, it’s evident that he lacked the empathy necessary to understand.

The celebration represents a battle cry, one designed to announce your presence to the world. In a society that has grown accustomed to seeing black men fail, graduating from a four-year college shows an unparalleled resiliency that runs deep within our veins.

We weren’t supposed to be here. For well over 300 years, my ancestors were brought here in chains against their will. They’ve survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Yet, the ramifications of racism can still be felt today, as evidenced by the 24 percent disparity between the graduation rates of blacks and whites.

Each graduate provides a sense of hope — specifically that our community is one step closer to achieving some level of racial equality, wealth and power. A diploma allows black students to remove a layer of the stigma that has been attached to us since birth. The celebration walk is a moment of release.

I appreciate the University of Florida president’s apology for the inappropriately aggressive treatment of the graduates, but it won’t erase the memory of being shoved offstage. My advice? Set a time limit. By no means is that unreasonable; thousands of students, regardless of race or gender, deserve to have their moment to shine. Consider giving a signal, not a shove, if students are taking too long.

C. Isaiah Smalls, II is a Rhoden Fellow and a graduate of Morehouse College from Lansing, Michigan. He studied Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Maroon Tiger.