Donning of the Kente ceremony highlights students’ African roots
As part of the culturally rich ceremony, students received a handmade kente cloth that represents the culture, spirituality, sophistication and tradition of their African ancestors.
As the 53 undergraduate and graduate students entered McKinnon Hall Thursday evening wearing their caps and gowns to take part in the inaugural Donning of the Kente Ceremony, they were led by drummers and dancers dressed in Ghanaian garb. For this group of black seniors, their African ancestry permeates every aspect of their lives, and they couldn’t think of a better way to wrap up their Elon experience than by celebrating something that means so much to them.
“My identity is part of the reason why I am where I am today,” said Delaney Hinnant, a marketing major from Wilson, North Carolina, who took part in the May 18 ceremony. “To celebrate my blackness along with my education, it’s very special.”
As part of the ceremony, each graduate received a stole made of kente cloth, a symbol of prestige in many African societies, handwoven specially for each graduate in a village in Ghana. Graduating students will wear the stole at Commencement for inspiration and to honor, celebrate, connect and reflect on their collective heritage and communal struggles and successes. “This ceremony is designed to recognize the academic and personal achievements of both undergraduate and graduate students,” said Shana Winstead ’03, who along with Lamar Lee ’12 serve as the Elon Black Alumni Network events co-chairs. The pair assisted with the planning and coordination of the event together with other members of the Elon community. “It is a traditional rite of passage ceremony.”
The origins of the kente cloth date back to the Ashanti people from Ghana in the 12th century. The cloth was worn by kings, queens and important figures of state in Ghanaian society, during ceremonial events and special occasions. In a cultural context, it is a visual representation of African history, philosophy, ethics, oral literature, moral values, social code of conduct, religious beliefs, political thought and aesthetic principles.
“I see what can be described as black royalty,” said Dorian Wanzer ’09, recipient of the 2016 EBAN Distinguished Young Alumna Award, to the students during her keynote speech. Having spent a semester in Ghana during her undergraduate years, an opportunity she described as “one of the best experiences of my life,” Wanzer was familiar with the significance of the kente cloth. She used a proverb a Ghanaian elder once shared with her to encourage the graduates to spread their wings after graduation: If a bird does not fly, it will go to bed hungry.
“Flying is being present, living in the moment,” she said. “On Saturday you are going to feel accomplished, joyful, and that’s something you should hold on to and something you should cherish. But I am going to be honest with you; when you leave this beautiful bubble that is Elon, life will happen. … There are going to be failures, there are going to be hardships, there are going to be struggles. Keep flying.”
“No matter what obstacles come your way, as long as you are here, your life isn’t over,” she added. “My charge to you, Black Class of 2017, is to step out in faith, take the risk, don’t let anybody steal your magic or steal your joy, be yourself, do your best, love hard and, most importantly, fly.”
Prior to the ceremony, students selected a person who made an impact on their Elon experience to present their kente cloth and share words to acknowledge their hard work and encourage them in their future endeavors. They were described as being caring sons and daughters, student leaders, passionate, driven, intelligent, world changers, civically active, athletes, authentic, unapologetically black. As each student took center stage, they also received an alumni pin, which served as a way to welcome them into the alumni ranks. “What they have achieved in earning their degree is no small feat. Our hope is that they feel the support of their ‘village,’” Winstead said, adding that as they transition into the alumni family, “we want them to know that their connection to Elon is lifelong, that their village is expanding.”
The ceremony replaces the African American reception traditionally held during Commencement Week in past years with a more meaningful cultural celebration for black seniors who recognize their African roots. Randy Williams, associate vice president for campus engagement, said the university is constantly assessing how to enhance the Elon experience for all students, which requires administrators to particularly consider minority groups to find ways to improve their experiences.
“The re-envisioned event is one of the means to affirming black students while also educating the community about the rich history and culture of the Ashanti people from Ghana,” he said. “As in the Ashanti tradition, the kente cloth is worn during special occasions, and this ceremony gathers family, faculty, staff and alumni to celebrate the success of black students.”
“To have our students experience the collective love from the Elon community and sense the shared hope for their successful futures, filled with significance for humankind, are two takeaways that I want students to get out of the ceremony,” he added.
That was certainly the case for Auston Henderson, a music theatre major from Texas who said studying in Ghana his junior year brought him back in touch with his roots. Besides giving black students the opportunity to come together before graduation to celebrate their accomplishments, Henderson said the event also served as a way to show the greater community that Elon respects and celebrates different groups and cultures on campus.
“I hope this is just the start of something that is going to get bigger and bigger,” he said. “I’d like to see it expand to other communities as well.”