UC Berkeley's Black Graduation: Celebrating community, culture, and achievement

May 4, 2023

As commencement season kicks off across the U.S., UC Berkeley’s Department of African American Studies is preparing to host the annual Black Graduation ceremony on May 20, 2023, at Zellerbach Hall. Black Grad, as it is affectionately called, honors and celebrates Black-, African-, and African American-identifying students upon completion of their undergraduate, master’s, Ph.D., J.D., and professional degree programs from departments all over campus. Black Grad is more than just a ceremony; it is a celebration of resilience, perseverance, and achievement. Grace Carroll, former director of African American Student Development at UC Berkeley, offered this perspective: “The celebration of the perseverance and achievement of Black students is critical to the well-being of our community. We know that because of the obstacles our young people face, the numbers graduating from college do not represent our true ability and potential. Black graduations provide empowerment to students and their families.” 

From a Backyard Party to Zellerbach Hall

Today, Black Graduation ceremonies are more prevalent at universities nationwide, but this was not the case in the 1970s. According to 40 Years and Counting, a publication documenting the history of UC Berkeley’s Department of African American Studies, Black Grad originated as a departmental graduation in the late ‘70s. Hosted in the backyard of a faculty member, a small group of African American Studies graduates gathered together to celebrate their achievements. Since then, the event has evolved into a venerated Berkeley tradition honoring the historical significance of Black excellence in a predominantly white institution. 

Professor Emeritus Charles P. Henry, a former president of the National Council for Black Studies who joined UC Berkeley in 1981, described Black Grad as “a time where all of the generations come together from grandparents to children of the graduates…it is the only place where you can see Black students from across the campus gather together: Economics, computer science, humanities, and social science majors all come together at the same time. When they march across the stage, it is a collective acknowledgment of success.” Lindsey Villarreal, a graduate advisor who has worked on Black Graduation events for decades at Berkeley, also emphasized its communal significance: “It’s a pride point for elders in the community to see younger people get degrees. It’s also inspiring for youth to see Black excellence in higher education.” 

Black students from across the campus gather together...when they march across the stage, it is a collective acknowledgment of success.
Professor Emeritus, Charles P. Henry

A Labor of Love

Black Grad is not your everyday graduation ceremony. African dancers and drummers greet guests with the rhythms of Africa, imbuing the event with a spirit of exuberance and a commemoration of culture. Even the procession is distinctive, allowing each graduate to share a quote or appreciation as they walk across the stage. The entire event is punctuated by musical performances and speeches curated explicitly for the Black community. “As I danced and celebrated with my fellow graduates, I spent a few minutes looking into the audience at all of the beautiful people; some were dressed in the traditional garb of their home country, while others were holding up handwritten signs inscribed with words of congratulation and praise. The energy was amazing! It was a sincere celebration by the village of all of our hard work,” said La Tonya Green after participating in Black Grad in 1997.

An event of this magnitude does not happen overnight or in the hands of one person. Sandra Richmond, director of administration for African American Studies, described Black Graduation as a “labor of love” that relies on the energy and enthusiasm of undergraduate students, faculty, and staff in the African American Studies department. Richmond also noted that another valuable outcome is that students are introduced to the resources and community available to them in the African American Studies department, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of the graduate degree program this year. Introducing students to Black Grad early in their academic careers provides students with connection and builds excitement for the day they will get to revel in their own graduation with family and friends. Associate Professor of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, Brandi Catanese ‘95 said, “As an undergraduate, even prior to my own chance to walk the stage as a senior, attending Black Graduation was a highlight of the academic year.” 

This year’s ceremony, set to take place on May 20, 2023, at Zellerbach Hall at 9:00 a.m., is expected to be another joyful and unforgettable experience. Ericka Huggins, a well-known activist, former political prisoner, and former leader in the Black Panther Party, will give this year’s keynote address. Huggins joins a long list of UC Berkeley Black Graduation speakers representing Black excellence, from civil rights advocates like Ruby Dee and Dr. Betty Shabazz to political heavyweights like Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Testimonials from graduates over the years describe Black Grad as the happiest, most inspirational moment of their lives. Mia Barber ‘90 said the ceremony “authenticated our achievements, our community, and our aspirations in one moment.” 

Nolan Jones ‘98 shared, “Black graduation felt like a celebration of community. It was a reaffirmation of who we are.” 

Tickets for Black Graduation 2023 are on sale now through May 20 at the Zellerbach box office and participating students can register online through May 8. More information about Black Grad is available on the African American Studies Department website.

Historical image of graduates participating in Black Graduation in front of Dwinelle Hall

Black Graduation ceremony at Dwinelle Plaza, 1979. 

Historical image of students waving during Black Graduation processional

Students celebrate during the Black Graduation processional.

Two students from Black Graduation

Students wear their graduation regalia with pride.

Image of activist Ericka Huggins

Activist and educator, Ericka Huggins, will speak at the upcoming 2023 Black Graduation ceremony.

[Black Grad] authenticated our achievements, our community, and our aspirations in one moment.
Mia Barber '90