Why We Named Every Name at Howard Graduation
May 11, 2020
What’s in a name?
In cultures like those in West Africa, babies are not named until the family has had a chance to pray and reflect and determine what the divine is saying about the new life that is before them—for there is an understanding that the name holds meaning. It speaks to the hopes and dreams for that child. In the Bible, there is a roll call of names of those considered faithful in a new testament passage and throughout the Hebrew Bible the lineage of people is provided over and over again to let us know who they are. Indeed, carrying a name often means carrying the legacy of generations who have gone before you and the impression and impact they have made and left on a community.
So I guess we should not have been so surprised when members of our graduating class of 2020 expressed only two overarching priorities for their recognition: One, the online thing must only be a temporary substitute and not a replacement for a physical ceremony in the future; and two, you must still call our names.
They went on to explain that this would be the reason their grandparents, friends and other family would go through the trouble to log in at all. Talent, speeches, songs, university officials – all nice but not necessary. The point is, the students insisted, that my name will be called in the presence of those who love me to celebrate an achievement that only 10 percent of the world can aspire to, an achievement that was impossible –even illegal—for African-Americans just a few short decades or generations ago.
Our students were no longer satisfied with group context, social anonymity or crowd culture. They recognized in this moment that their graduation –like many of the religious, spiritual and conversion experiences we people of faith hold dear is both communal and individual. They both want to celebrate together, not #alonetogether, as well as be celebrated individually. It is their own unique moment of ecstasy, to know that what they have worked for, prayed for, sacrificed for, has come to pass. It is shared with the family who also worked, prayed and sacrificed to make it so—in many cases as first generation college graduates, some as first-generation high school graduates.
For this moment to carry the meaning that it ought, it must include the personalized recognition of everyone who has added their name to the group collectively known as the Howard University Class of 2020. So, we spent around 15-20 minutes on the collective components and around 30-40 on the calling of names, that were certainly sprinkled with shouts of joy, tears of gladness and loud clapping that were heard and felt in our hearts from wherever we were in that moment.