Nearly 300 Black University of Virginia graduates and hundreds more of their loved ones filled the seats of Old Cabell Hall on Friday evening ahead of Final Exercises for the first “Donning of the Kente” ceremony since 2019, before the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Established by the Black Leadership Institute within the UVa Office of African American Affairs in the spring of 2005, the ceremony is designed to bring the class together and recognize the work and achievements of Black student leaders while adorning them with stoles of kente cloth, which has its historic roots in West Africa.
The Office of African American Affairs also took time to recognize Happy Perry, the mother of D’Sean Perry, a 22-year-old studio art major and football player who was killed alongside two others on Nov. 13 in a shooting on Grounds.
Michael Gerard Mason, interim dean of African-American Affairs at UVa, donned Perry’s mother with her own kente stole as she sat in the audience next to Michael Hollins, a survivor of the Nov. 13 shooting and a December 2022 UVa graduate.
The evening was filled with nods toward Perry as well as Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler, who also lost their lives on Nov. 13.
They were Hoos that many on Grounds called friends and even family.
“As Black students at UVa we have a very unique experience full of nuance and complexity,” said graduating fourth-year Alexis Stokes at the event. “Our existence has changed, and continues to change what it means to be a student here at UVa. … We bring purpose to Grounds. Continue to be the light that brightens the room … to every person or institution that tries to tell you that you are not worthy because you are … to keep the name and the legacy of our brothers who are no longer with us alive.”
The Office of African American Affairs also gave special recognition to Theresa M. Davis, the UVa drama teacher who organized and attended the class field trip to Washington, D.C., that ended in tragedy on Nov. 13. Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Robyn S. Hadley also received special recognition for providing an “exceptional student experience for 22,000 students” in the midst of the tragedy last fall.
Since 2018, each graduating class has received a different Adinkra symbol, which originates from hand-painted fabric made in Ghana, to adorn their stole and represent the class. This year, the Office of African American Affairs selected the Denkyem, a crocodile that “represents the abundance of intelligence you arrived with and your defining characteristic, adaptation. No class in our lifetime will likely evidence such adaptability, resiliency, and versatility.”
“You all … likely have spent many hours wondering if the world really understands what it required and requires to be Denkyem,” Mason said. The crocodile lives in the water yet breathes air. To be thrust into unnatural environments that could exploit your weaknesses and limit your natural strengths. Tonight, that wondering ends. From the moment you applied to this university we could imagine, in our Black imaginary genius…we could see your potential as a Wahoo.”
The students were surrounded by African and Black American culture during the ceremony which took place just before sunset on Friday. An enthusiastic group of drummers gave the students an energetic precision before soon-be-graduate Tenneh Bonsu performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the “Black National Anthem” and graduating fourth-year Vanessa Joaquim dedicated an original poem to the class of 2023.
The Office of African American Affairs prides itself on preserving the history and culture while providing social and academic resources for the students it was designed to serve 47 years ago, Mason told The Daily Progress.
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