Student procession at the 40th Onyx Rites of Passage Ceremony, also known as the “Blackalaureate,” at the Omni Providence Hotel, in Providence, Rhode Island, May 27, 2017. The event is held the night before Brown University’s main commencement ceremony for all graduating students.
Parents, relatives, and friends look on as students collect their Kente cloths and gather on stage for a class photo. 79 students were inducted into the Onyx, which was founded in 1977. The aim of the Onyx is to celebrate the “transition from Black student to Black Alumni.”
West African drums reverberate throughout Omni Providence Hotel as parents line up to take photographs. “Onyx” events are not unique to Brown University. Georgia State holds an Onyx Ball as the “exciting conclusion to Back History Month.” The University of Missouri holds a Black faculty and staff social called Onyx. The University of Pennsylvania has an Onyx Senior Honor Society, founded in 1974. Emory University has the Onyx Awards, “named after pillars of the Black community, faculty, staff and students.” These events are not part of a larger organization.
The mineral onyx became a symbol of black subculture as early as 1933, when the Onyx Club in New York City (a 52nd Street speakeasy) featured black and white jazz musicians. “Onyx” is still associated with jazz and also with the gamier side of city life. Numerous strip clubs around the country are named “onyx,” and the term shows up frequently in the names of black escort services, massage parlors, and porn sites. As a symbol, onyx thus has a curious double life, representing high aspiration and achievement in the black community, but also the lubricious world of prostitutes and hustlers.
At the beginning of the ceremony, the audience viewed video testimonials from black graduates in the class of 2017. Most of the students simply expressed gratitude to their parents and family members.
A sense of joy and accomplishment was on display throughout the evening.
Emotions varied throughout the evening. The students above conveyed a somber attitude while others jubilantly swaggered towards the stage. Earlier in the ceremony, keynote speaker Lisa Gelobter ’91 was met with stony silence when she spoke of her transgender nephew’s right to use the bathroom corresponding with his chosen gender identity.
Many students are the first in their family to graduate from college, a theme underscored throughout the evening.
Brown’s black graduates pose for one last picture before their Blackalaureate concludes.
Brown’s Commencement Procession the following morning. Students gather on Waterman Street before proceeding through Brown’s Van Wickle Gates, used twice a year to welcome new students and to send off graduates. Since 1977, Brown’s black students have been showcased at the front of the procession, but the lead group has now expanded to include Native Americans and other students of color. This apparently does not include Asian or Asian American students, who are dispersed throughout the procession.
Graduates fidgeted with their phones and chatted with friends and family as they waited for the procession to begin.
Students wait for the beginning of the procession. Parents and relatives were prohibited from entering the street where students waited.
Few students of color can be found elsewhere in the procession.
Students gather on the lawn of the First Baptist Church in America as they wait for the arrival of Brown President, Christina Paxson. Her remarks touched on issues popular with Brown’s graduating class. She was applauded after when she talked up Brown’s decision to defy the Trump administration’s executive orders on immigration.
Graduates stand for the Star Spangled Banner sung by Brown ’17 graduate Anna Stacy. None held his hand over his heart.
Image Credit: NAS; Ad Meskens.