By Kristina Henry Collins.
The month of May is full of celebrations and milestone recognitions on many school and college campuses across America. Most notable are graduation ceremonies that are filled with “pomp and circumstance”, a phrase used to signify a splendid celebration with ceremony. Pomp and Circumstance is also the title of the infamous composition by Sir Edward Elgar (Reynolds, 2010) that is played at most graduation ceremonies.
Originally composed and played as a military march song in honor of King Edward VII’s coronation, the inspiration for Elgar’s (1901) Pomp and Circumstance title came from a line in Shakespeare’s Othellowhere Othello declared a loss of mental peace that came with the “pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war”. Four years later, when Yale University bestowed an honorary doctorate to King Edward VII, it was also played as he walked off stage. Afterwards, schools around the country began to adopt this tradition as part of their pageantry of ceremonial display in honor of graduating students. Proud family members, friends, and faculty come to show their support and share in this milestone accomplishment graduates at all levels.
Pomp and Circumstance, along with the ritualistic activities and academic regalia worn by the graduates, continues to set the emotional tone for the celebratory event to this day. While it is an intangible concept, emotional tone plays a very important role in shaping feelings and sense of belonging surrounding the overall experience. Graduation represents more than coursework completion. As a rite of passage, it symbolizes a student’s journey of separation from his or her existing status in society (processional), a personal transformation (inculcation), and a return to society with a new status (recessional).
The traditional “pomp and circumstance” graduation ceremony is only one perspective for fostering this rite of passage. Many schools and universities incorporate other ceremonial celebrations during this time as a culturally responsive complement to the traditional graduation that celebrates academic achievement, sense of community, and cultural heritage. Especially for marginalized or underrepresented students, these ceremonies add personal meaning and cultural value to the students’ educational process. For some, it represents “survival” in an environment that may not have always embraced or significantly recognized that part of them that they value the most. Participating in a non-traditional rite of passage helps to reinforce who they are and the community of support available to them as they prepare to transition with a positive last experience.
One common example is the Lavender Ceremony. The Lavender graduation is a ceremony that honors the achievements and contributions of graduates from the LGBTQ+ community, including ally students (Human Rights Campaign, 2018). It was born out of the discrimination that Dr. Ronnie Sanio experienced when she was banned from attending the graduation of her children because of her sexual orientation. This experience triggered empathy to the pain that might be felt by LGBTQ+ students who were also denied an opportunity to participate in graduation ceremony. Thus, Sanio designed the first ceremony in 1995 at University of Washington. The lavender color represents the blended color of pink and black that gay men and women were forced to wear, respectively, as political prisoners in Nazi Germany. It is symbolic in that they took past symbols of hatred and reclaimed them, together, as a color of strength, survival, and pride.
Another common rite of passage held on college campuses as well as middle and high schools is the Sankofa Ceremony (Inniss, 2013). A Ghanian term, Sankofa means “go back and get it”. This African concept stresses the principle of honoring the past to inform one’s purpose and to guide one’s destiny.
At the University of Georgia’s Rites of Sankofa, graduates are provided an opportunity during the ceremony to reflect on experiences while at UGA to consciously identify “lessons learned” that will be used to move them forward. In addition, what distinguishes this program from the traditional graduation ceremony is family, friends, and/or faculty participate alongside the graduating students, whereby visually representing the shared achievement and support that embodies the student’s academic success. This inclusion of family is also often seen as home-school graduation ceremonies as well. For the UGA Sankofa ceremony, students receive a certificate of completion and is presented with a Kente stole, which represents African heritage and knowledge, to wear as part of their traditional graduation regalia.
Historically Kente stoles were associated with Historically Black College/ University (HBCU) students’ college experience, but for students predominately white institutions (PWIs), it’s another visual representation of pride in their cultural heritage that is not necessarily recognized by the university they attend. Students may choose the Kente stole with traditional African colors and Adrinkra symbols or wear the colors of their historical Black Greek-lettered organization.
Learn more about graduation ceremonial Rite of Passage:
Rite of Passage Programming (2018). Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color. Retrieved from https://www.coseboc.org/sankofa-passages
Human Rights Campaign, (2018). Lavender Graduation. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/resources/lavender-graduation
Inniss, E. (2013, June 27). Sankofa’s culturally significant graduation ceremony. New York Amsterdam News. p. 29.
Pomp and Circumstance. (n.d.). Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon. Retrieved from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/pomp-and-circumstance
Reynolds, A. (2010). The King and the Troubadour: Edward VII & Edward Elgar. Elgar Society Journal, 16(5), 7-34.