What’s the best possible outcome for each side of the issue about dancing on stage at an HBCU commencement? A video goes viral, gets millions of hits and earns positive reaction from HBCU supporters and media. People see the dancing as an expression of black joy, black excellence, black tenacity, all-black-everything-good wrapped up into a 10-30 second choreographed routine. Everyone is happy with the attention and the representation.
In the worst of possible outcomes, the dancer falls and is seriously injured on stage. The story goes viral, gets millions of hits and creates a debate about the logistical, cultural and social elements of why black folks should or should not be dancing on a stage during a graduation ceremony. It invites public discourse about black respectability politics, intergenerational connectedness among black people, and how blackness should be portrayed within the American academic enterprise.
The difference between these two dramatically different outcomes is one gracefully executed or a clumsily-missed dance step. And that moment, which simultaneously carries with it so much power and fragility for individuals and institutions, is probably where we should begin the dialog about graduates performing on the historically black commencement stage.
The Black American experience is defined by burden; the more of it we can shoulder, the more valuable we appear to ourselves and within the contexts of American citizenship. Those who can endure discrimination and obstacles and be an expert in a certain industry are those who can ‘transcended race,’ like Thurgood Marshall, Prince, Muhammad Ali and millions of others whose names we’ll never know. One who can make white people more comfortable, more entertained, more enlightened on race and more money as a result are usually those to earn that distinguished badge of western nativism lived out in its fullest form.
But we rarely talk about the contexts of Black citizenship; that pressure that black folks have to live, work and act in blatant opposition to white oppression and its systems. This is executed in the way we talk, dress, wear our hair, where and how we worship, the kind of politics we hold, the music we listen to, the food we eat and the way we love.
When we do one or some of these things and can show our individually authentic value on these things, we are approved as black citizens. People look at us as ‘woke’ or committed to full emancipation in some form, at some level.
The generations following slavery, for mostly economic reasons, have allowed American citizenship and Black citizenship to intersect. The fear that America used to have of black culture has now transferred over to fear of black bodies, and an insistence that since more black bodies are more frequently in places where they commonly haven’t been, that there is an innate need to control what they may or may not do given the themes of resistance, uprising, and unrest coming more into places where a lot affluent white folks have historically been most comfortable. Blackness has become less of a threat to American way of life and more of a culture add-on that can be snapped and built upon like identity legos.
One of the ways black people assemble the identity legos is through dancing at commencement.
Some believe that dancing on stage at commencement is something students shouldn’t do, is not universally accepted, and understand that at its surface is an act of individual selfishness cloaked in inalienable rights of expression, speech and the pursuit of happiness. Supporters would defend it by saying dancing underscores students’ pride in themselves for overcoming great obstacles, investing great mental, financial and social resources, and for realizing the chance to change their family’s history forever.
But with all of these things understood and accepted, it remains a selfish and self-serving act lacking dignity, professionalism, consideration for classmates, families, administration and academic traditions.
Some believe that suppressing dancing on stage is something that administrators shouldn’t do, will be universally rejected by students and alumni. Supporters would defend it by saying it is not an act of black interpretation of white supremacy, but tradition passed down from the mystery schools of antiquity to communicate the seriousness and responsibility of higher learning, which should be down without smartphones and self-actualization.
But with all of these things understood and accepted, it remains an outdated attempt to control adults simply for the sake of being able to control them.
Because we keep refusing to address these core issues with brutal honesty, we are encroaching upon another layer of black pride turning into protest on our campuses. We all looked in horror at black graduates at the University of Florida forcibly removed from their commencement moments. In some ways we should expect and embrace HBCU students using our campuses as a platform (literally and figuratively) to rebel against that oppression with a celebration counter-narrative; little explosions of joy at having a place where at all times, we can be the most authentic version of ourselves on our terms.
And students who want our degrees and institutions to be regarded as rigorous and resource-deserving as the University of Florida in the eyes of lawmakers, donors and hiring managers, fairly or not, should want our largest academic events to be free of negative coverage or opinions which could derail at goal.
Dancing can help or harm both individual and institutional interpretations of our joy and worth. There is a fine line, and it only takes one step in either direction to fall off of it.