In recent weeks, dozens of Black students graduating from the University of Toronto received a special package in the mail: a kente cloth stole with the words “U of T Black Grad” emblazoned on one end and “Class of 2021” on the other.
Organizers of this year’s Black Graduation – a student-run event that celebrates the achievements of the University of Toronto’s Black graduates – shipped the stoles as far away as London, England.
Lead organizer Cindy Njoki Kamau says the stoles are fixtures of events celebrating Black graduates at Canadian and U.S. universities – and she wanted to be sure U of T’s graduates had a physical reminder of their accomplishments.
“Out of anything I think they’re the biggest symbol of being a Black graduate in North America,” said Kamau, who is also the president of U of T’s Black Students’ Association (BSA) and a political science specialist and African Studies student at Victoria College in the Faculty of Arts & Science.
She added that, on top of the regular demands that come with earning a university degree, Black students often deal with the added stress of microaggressions and a lack of representation in the classroom.
“Seeing the stole worn, it symbolizes that, despite all the barriers – systemic, social, everything – you’ve gone through it, you’ve persevered and graduated.”
In a bid to support local businesses during the pandemic, the student association sourced the stoles from Afroish, a Black woman-owned business in Brampton, Ont., Kamau said. In addition to Kamau, the Black Grad organizing team includes: Debora Oresajo, Bianka Okine, Massoma Kisob, Adriana Williams, Saron Tecle, Etienne Oshinowo, Yasmin Draman and Venus Asamoah.
So far, more than 85 graduating students from U of T confirmed they will attend Black Grad, which was cancelled last year because of COVID-19. Their photos will appear alongside personal quotations in a digital yearbook that will be sent to graduating students after the event. The theme of this year’s event is resilience.
“More than any other class of graduates, I think, honestly, resilience is what has gotten us through school in the midst of a pandemic,” Kamau said.
Randell Adjei, a spoken word artist who was named the province’s first poet laureate in April, will address the Class of 2021 at the virtual event. Adjei founded R.I.S.E. (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere), a youth-led initiative to help young and emerging artists express themselves positively. Last year, prior to Canada’s first reported case of COVID-19, Adjei opened for Barack Obama before a crowd of 6,000 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
In a recent interview with Global News, the Ghanian born Adjei spoke about how he learned resilience through his upbringing in Scarborough. “You think about people like The Weeknd, Shamier Anderson, Stephan James that have come out of Scarborough,” he said. “I think Scarborough has taught me about being resilient. Understand that you may be the underdog, but use that to propel you forward. You know, don’t see that as a crutch. I think, if anything, it can be a trampoline for us.”
This year’s Black Grad event will also feature performances by graduating students: Destiny Mae Ramos-Alleyne, Stephane Martin Demers and Petra Alfred.
Martin Demers, a pianist graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music, will be performing Sonata in E Minor by Florence Price, who is known as the first African American composer whose music was performed by a major symphony.
“During the Black Graduation Ceremony, Black excellence will be on full display, affirming our great ability to thrive and prosper – whatever we pursue, wherever we go, and whoever we become,” Martin Demers says.
Family, friends and invited U of T faculty will be attending the virtual ceremony to cheer on the graduating class. Kamau says her mother, Muthoni, will be staying up late into the night to watch from Kenya.
“I wish I could see her face enjoying this celebration with me,” Kamau said. “She’s going to cry for sure.”