On a college campus like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the African-American student population exists as only 5.2% of the entire student body, representation is very important. From that very first college visit, to that very first time you’re referring to yourself as an alumni, your experiences are made a product of your environment. Your environment is what distinguishes an okay college career from one worth remembering.

As a recent black graduate of UIUC, I knew that after taking so many classes where I’d look around and be the only student of color in the room, or one of the few which could all be counted on one hand, it was important for me to see people from similar backgrounds succeeding at a college level. Often when we don’t people like ourselves in spaces like higher education, the possibilities which we imagine for ourselves become very limited.

With this in mind, I decided to attend the 40th Annual Black Congratulatory ceremony on Saturday, May 12, 2018 at 7:30 pm in 100 George Huff Hall. Hosted by the Bruce D. Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center, this event is held in order to recognize those students of African Descent who have graduated from the U of I with a bachelor, masters, Ph.D. or professional degree. The ceremony reflects the African-American tradition.

As the mission of Bruce D. Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center is to provide a network of programs and support services promoting the individual, social, cultural and academic well-being of Illinois’ African American students, it’s only fitting that this organization would be behind an event so important to the black experience on the UIUC campus.

One of the most memorable moments was when UI student Brianna Tyler graced us with a performance of “Beautiful” by Mali music. The entire crowd lit up, literally, as they waved their phone flashlights pointed towards the stage, to the lyrics:

Put my lighter in the air for you
I see whatch’u doing, yeah I see whatch’u go through
Put my lighter in the air, the truth is you’re beautiful, beautiful
Now put your lighter in the air for us,
Everybody singin' together, sing a new song
Put your lighter in the air for love is beautiful, beautiful

Representation-wise, the most important moment was definitely witnessed during the three seconds each individual graduate received to walk across the stage and receive their 2018 Black Congratulatory certificate of achievement. Each individual person made the most of the spotlight being on them as they waved to their parents, were congratulated with a traditional chant from their Greek brothers and sisters, did their favorite dance, or simply chose a confident strut across the stage as they transitioned from future to current UIUC Alumni. It was only after attending my specific college graduation that I realized this kind of spotlight for black graduates to celebrate themselves that Black Congratulatory became a space for, did not exist across the board. There was no more dancing, no more chanting. And there was definitely no “swag surfin.” Instead, this was replaced with mispronounced names of African origin, and having to share the stage with three other people at least in a haste shuffle towards the diploma cases.

Black Congratulatory did for me what the larger, more general graduations fail to do. It provided a space for authenticity. A place where a group of historically underrepresented people, who arguably are still underrepresented today, can be recognized in their greatest achievements and simultaneously recognize that their is a space in higher academia for the intersectionality between black excellence and black culture, and the future possibilities are limitless.

Photos by Reneeta Mack.