OAKLAND, Calif. - For the first time, at least in modern history, the 143 African-American students at Oakland Technical High School will host their own Black Graduation ceremony on Monday, two days before the mainstream commencement.
It is the only high school in the Oakland Unified School District to hold such a ceremony and was an idea that was first rebuffed. Nearly 40 percent of the school’s 2,000 students are African American. And many say they wanted to celebrate their particular struggles and achievements, which only people from their cultural background could understand.
“At Oakland Tech, we’re not supposed to be oppressed,” said Donae Taylor, 17, the senior behind this year’s Black Graduation. “But it’s hard for black students to get equality. I feel like our voices can only be heard if a white person says it for us. Having our own graduation honors our struggles, our heartaches, being talked down to and proving we didn’t cheat on tests. It’s to give us an extra pat on the back.”
Oakland Tech joins public institutions such as the University California at Berkeley, Berkeley High and for the first time this year, the West Contra Costa Unified School District, all of which hold separate black graduations. Harvard University held its first official commencement for black graduate students last year, in addition to the commencement ceremony for the entire school where they received their diplomas.
There is a growing movement for niche community graduations across the country, including a “Lavender” graduation held at the University of Delaware for the LGBTQ community and a “First-Generation Graduation” held at Columbia University in New York.
Critics see these events as having a separatist attitude, something Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., worked hard to fight against. And they are being held at a time when the country is rife with accusations of racism and hateful attitudes toward ‘the other.’
“This is racist and a disgrace to all racial progress made over the last 60 years,” tweeted Turning Point USA Director Charlie Kirk about the Harvard black ceremony. “MLK would be disgusted at this.” Los Angeles comedian David Smalley tweeted, “The lines between ‘celebration’ and ‘segregation’ are getting blurry.” In regards to the Tech event, UpInit22 tweeted, "Hmm... if this was a white only graduation it would cause an uproar." And Marlencha1922 tweeted,"this is quite racist."
The debate rages inside the African-American community too. On Facebook, Cheri Laws Jordan from Oakland, who is black, wrote this is "not OK. Teaching separation of race. We seem to be moving backwards."
But the advocates of smaller “cultural” graduation celebrations do not see what they’re doing as anti-desegregation. Supporters say the special ceremonies are simply a way to honor marginalized communities in a way that’s fitting and meaningful particularly to them. Jrae Hardin, from Vallejo, who is also black, wrote on Facebook that there is a big difference between segregation, which is a government policy of exclusion, and separation, which is allowing a community to isolate itself while still having the same access to educations and services.
“This is not an event to separate but to celebrate traditions in students’ lives,” said Berkeley High vice principal Felicia Phillips. She added that “everyone is invited” to attend these ceremonies. But many have particular rituals and customs that would not necessarily be appropriate to perform at a general population event.
For example, libations are poured at the Berkeley High African-American graduation and people call out the names of those who helped them on their journey. The Latino/Chicano students at Berkeley High hold a separate graduation ceremony in a Catholic church, and the Asian students perform cultural dances from South Asia.
“We want these to be safe spaces where people can commune,” Phillips said.
At Oakland Tech, the idea for a black graduation had been turned down several times and there were several back-and-forth emails of discontent, said Elizabeth Hunter, the school’s college and career readiness specialist. Some people didn’t feel it was appropriate, especially to spend public school money on the separate event. Others thought a black graduation would replace the mainstream commencement, which will be held two days later on Wednesday at the Paramount Theater. It does not. In fact, OUSD spokesman John Sasaki emphasized that the Black Graduation is not an official commencement as no one wears a cap and gown and no diplomas are handed out.
So Donae and Hunter set out to get their own funding. Hunter launched a GoFundMe page. She asked for parent donations. Everett & Jones BBQ agreed to give some food to the event, which will be held in the school auditorium. Once everything fell into place and no public dollars went to support it, the principal gave the program the OK.
And the green light is a big deal, Hunter said. Even though every student is handed a diploma at graduation, she said the path to get that diploma is the not same for everyone. "Oakland Tech's commencement is really a 'white commencement,' "Hunter said.
She added: “Oakland Tech strives to make sure that every student gets resources. But equity isn't handing kids all the same thing. It's giving kids without, what other kids have.”
As examples, she said that many African Americans may struggle in school but can’t afford private tutors to help. Or, black students feel they are accused of cheating or told they won’t amount to anything, let alone graduate. Once, Donae told her teachers she couldn't attend something after school because she had another meeting. They assumed she didn't care and was being lazy, she said, noting that often white students miss class for meetings or sports and no one questions them.
“We are looked down upon because of our skin tone,” Donae said.
The elite engineering and Paideia English and history programs at Oakland Tech are mostly white, Hunter and Donae pointed out.
“No one understands the African-American struggle except the African-American community,” Hunter said.
She added that any group who feels like they aren’t being heard should get to host their own ceremony if they want. In fact, Oakland Tech has a template for creating a special ceremony for individual groups if they so choose, Sasaki said. That said, she and others acknowledged that have a special "white graduation" likely would not be OK, but if a group wanted to hold an Irish cultural ceremony, that would be more appropriate.
Donae agrees. She said she was first told by the principal that she couldn’t hold a black graduation because then “all the other races would want their own.”
For Donae, that would be fine. But for now, it’s only the African American students who have been asking.
“If they don’t ask for it, then they can clearly don’t want it that much,” Donae said. “Why can’t we have it when we’re asking for it?”
IF YOU'RE INTERESTED: Oakland Tech’s Black Graduation will be held Monday from 6 to 7:30 PM in the auditorium. To contribute, click here. Editor's Note: KTVU's Lisa Fernandez has a daughter who attends Oakland Tech.