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‘We belong here’: Students build unity at 5th annual Black Convocation

Since its inception five years ago, Duke’s Black Convocation Ceremony has provided an evening of community and recognition for Duke's black undergraduate and graduate students. 

As people entered Penn Pavilion on the evening of Sept. 4, they found themselves surrounded by large poster tributes memorializing the protests, sacrifices and steps taken toward racial integration on Duke’s campus. Between the linen-covered tables and Duke-blue hydrangeas were signs promoting historical acts of desegregation, both white and black students depicted as a symbol of unity within the Duke community. 

Unity was the theme of this year’s fifth annual Black Convocation Ceremony. The event was designed to “speak to both the distinctiveness and the beauty of Duke's African diaspora,” wrote Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, in an email.

First-year Ezra Belgrave attributed her motivation to attend the event to the “feelings of validation” she has received from the black community at Duke so far. 

“[To me] blackness means being proud of who you are and being able to overcome whatever life throws your way,” Belgrave told The Chronicle.

The opportunity to interact with a strong black community like the one at Duke showed her that “we belong here and we can overcome people trying to bring us down.” 

Senior Yannet Daniel, a Black Convocation student leader and co-president of Duke’s Ethiopian/Eritrean Student Transnational Association, expressed a similar sentiment.

“I feel honored to be amidst an upcoming class that is just full of energy and excitement,” Daniel said. 

As everyone took their seats, the ceremony officially began with a procession of black student leaders ushered in by the music of The Bradley Simmons Drummers. 

Guinn followed the procession with formal introductions and a presentation that highlighted both the diversity of the African diaspora at Duke, as well as the history of black struggles, freedom and representation on Duke’s campus. 

“Everything that Black people endeavor to do at Duke, helps to make the University better and helps it live up to being a University as good as its promise,” Guinn wrote The Chronicle. “We are grateful to gather to encourage one another and grow in our sense of self and belonging so that we are stronger for the journey and work that we do.” 

Speakers elaborated on the spirit of unity and Duke black camaraderie. 

Law School student Chavis Jones, president of Duke’s Black Graduate and Professional Students Association, cited the late Toni Morrison.

“‘As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think,’” he said. “This space, this university is a space that is world renowned for the capacity of the students, faculty and staff to think. But it is also imperative that we dream.”

With such interactive activities as a recitation led by Rev. Joshua Lazard and the delivery of an Afro-inspired poem by Michael Ivory Jr., Trinity ’18, the evening concluded with a collective call to solidarity and the traditional “Roots and Wings: A Meditation in Several Tongues.” 

For people like Megan Stanley, a social work student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and intern for the Duke Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, the evening was a welcome moment of solidarity. 

“Blackness means joy, resilience, safety amongst her people, and the feeling of being seen,” Stanley said. 

Other attendees echoed similar sentiments, including William Page, program coordinator for the Center for Documentary Studies. 

“Blackness means family, resilience in a day-to-day way and a generational way, and the opportunity to commune,” Page said.