by Dr. Julianne Malveaux
The Black Panther, Chadwick Bozeman, graduated from Howard University with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts (BFA) in 2000. His writing partner is also a HU graduate. Bozeman came back to his alma mater to address the Class of 2018, and to reportedly receive an honorary degree.
The Howard University graduation is one of more than 100 HBCU graduations, and more than 4000 graduations around the country. April Ryan brought down the house at Bennett College on May 5. Sophia Nelson spoke at the Philander Smith (Arkansas) graduation. All over the country, families are gathering, people are celebrating, and graduations are an occasion of joy.
If you are African American and graduated from the University of Florida, however, your achievement might be marred by the horrible memory of a faculty graduation marshal physically pushing you off the stage simply because you stopped to flash a frat sign or to execute a couple of steps. More than 20 students were assaulted by the unidentified faculty member (although some say he is a chemistry lecturer), who is now on paid leave.
Why would the university continue to pay someone who seems to have differentially attacked Black students (apparently no white students were assaulted or pushed off the stage)? This lecturer is a menace to society and college students who should not be exposed to his racism, either on a stage or in a classroom.
University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs has apologized to the affected students and reached out to at least some of the students. The New York Times reported that Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity member Oliver Telusma ’21 got a call from President Fuchs, but as of May 8, had not called him back.
From where I sit, Telusma should not call President Fuchs, instead the President needs to track that student (and the others) down and visit them personally, if necessary. The University of Florida incident reminds Black students that graduation is but one of the hurdles they must clear. Every day, every single day, they face the possibility of pernicious racism, differential treatment, and the threat of law enforcement to compel compliance with the most foolish of laws and norms, spoken or unspoken.
That’s why Holly Hylton, the white woman who managed a Philadelphia Starbucks, felt free to call the police on two black men after they had been seated for a scant two minutes without ordering anything. That’s why a hysterical white female bigot called the police on a Black man who was barbequing in a public park in Oakland, California, where barbequing is customary.
That’s why the police were called on three Black women (and a white man) because they failed to wave or smile when they exited an Airbnb in Rialto, California, and detained for 45 minutes even though they had proof that they had reserved the Airbnb. That’s why the police wrestled a Black woman to the ground (exposing her bare breasts) in an Alabama Waffle House after she asked for plastic cutlery, and an ignorant employee reportedly said she did not know her place. And the beat goes on and on and on. Law enforcement officers, whose mission is to “serve and protect” are frequently questioned by Black people and have now become the tools of racist white people who want Black people to “know their place”.
The police are too often called to put black people in their place, to force them to comply, to reinforce the tenet of white supremacy; the notion that when we see a white person we must shuck and jive and smile. So-called law enforcement officers become servants of racist who want us in our place. I want the graduates to know that their place is everyplace. Class of 2018, your place is in that Starbucks at the table, order or not. Your place is in that Waffle House, getting the utensils you requested. Your place is at the lake in Oakland, burning those bones on your grill. Your place is on that stage at the University of Florida. As a matter of fact, your place is everyplace!
Resistance, though, now has a high price. Who wants to go to jail and end up, maybe, like Sandra Bland, whose mysterious death in Texas still has not been solved. Who wants to be handcuffed, humiliated, exposed, and maligned, just because you asked a simple question. Starbucks will close thousands of stores to the tune of millions of dollars for unconscious bias training. But who will train these biased police officers and the racists who call them because their feelings are bruised because no one waved at them.
The Class of 2018 will learn, as have millions of other African Americans, that racism is alive and well. They’ve cleared a hurdle with graduation, but even as some cross the stage they are being reminded that there are many more hurdles to clear to survive in our unfortunately racist nation. Perhaps, though, the Class of 2018 will be among those to dismantle the racist hurdles. Perhaps in the process of clearing other hurdles (graduate and professional school, marriage and children, artificial intelligence and gentrification), they will also find the wherewithal to eliminate racial barriers to success