Kente ceremony honors cultures of law & health sciences grads

Elon University’s School of Law and School of Health Sciences celebrated the pride and heritage of students who recognize their African roots in a Commencement eve program filled with laughs, cheers, and many boxes of tissues for the tears of joy of both graduates and their guests.

Two decades ago, as Buffie Longmire-Avital prepared to begin graduate studies in psychology, her mother gifted her a copy of the controversial 1969 book “The Spook Who Sat by the Door.”

Author Sam Greenlee’s novel tells the story of the fictional Dan Freeman, the first Black man to serve in the CIA who would use his training to organize communities in Chicago to attack the city’s social and political systems.

Longmire-Avital, who delivered the keynote address for a December 10, 2021, Donning of the Kente ceremony for Black students in Elon University’s School of Law and School of Health Sciences graduate programs, explained to her audience how the book’s themes shape her work today as an associate professor of psychology at Elon.

“It would take my entire graduate experience, an experience that included great expectations, crushing disappointments, necessary but terrifying pivots, and harsh realizations about how slowly the winds of change move through the systems I occupy to understand why my mother had given me that book,” Longmire-Avital told two dozen law, physical therapy, and physician assistant graduates the day before their Commencement ceremonies.

“We devour classic texts and theories of our disciplines, eager to find the understudied area that we can contribute to, all part of the task of making our marks and joining the canon of scholars before us,” she continued. “But as Black student scholars, we must simultaneously navigate academic manifestations of and reckonings with the very ideology and practices that have long oppressed our people and have oppressed us.”

What does that mean for graduate students as they prepare to embark on careers in health systems that, in the words of Longmire-Avital, have “historically not prioritized the needs of black Americans” or, citing the law, “can seemingly be transformed into a skillful weapon against us at any time?”

“Don’t sit by doors in limited hopes that you will either gain pieces of information or an invitation to slip in,” she said. “Hold doors open and push them open when necessary. Dan did not fail because he used complicit tools. He failed because he attempted to dismantle a system by himself.

“When we focus on holding doors open and pushing across thresholds together, the door and the space on the other side must change. Perhaps this is how doors eventually buckle, leaving no foundation or parts to be rebuilt.”

Longmire-Avital’s remarks were one of the many highlights of an emotional ceremony filled with laughs, tears, and applause as an annual tradition at Elon Law merged this year with the School of Health Sciences. It was Elon University’s first ever Commencement weekend event co-hosted by two separate graduate programs.

Those who took part in the Donning of the Kente ceremony received a stole made of kente cloth imported from West Africa. During the ceremony, faculty read aloud remarks submitted by a family member or mentor of each graduate, each of whom stood on stage before their classmates and guests.

At the conclusion of each passage, a faculty member would present graduates with a stole to be worn the next day at Commencement.

The kente cloth symbolizes and celebrates prestige in many African societies. Its origins date to 12th Century Ghana where 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.

“The Donning of the Kente serves as a cultural ceremony celebrating the achievements of law, physical therapy, and physician assistant studies students who recognize their African roots,” said School of Health Sciences Dean Becky Neiduski in her welcoming remarks. “We trust the donning will be a positive and memorable experience that rewards our graduates and their loved ones with a more personal and culturally relevant ceremony at a significant moment in their family histories.”

The program was organized by Elon Law Assistant Professor Tiffany Atkins L’11 and Laké Laosebikan-Buggs, Elon University’s director of inclusive excellence for graduate and professional education, and featured drummers from Don Foli Dance & Drum.

In closing the kente ceremony, Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman thanked the families and friends who have supported and encouraged the Class of 2021 graduates over the past few years. He also charged graduates with serving as mentors for those who follow in their footsteps.

“The moments we witnessed with the donning of the kente by the parents, mentors, loved ones, and friends of our graduates in both the School of Law and the School of Health Sciences should remind us that no one person is an island unto themselves,” Bierman said. “Our graduates embody the dreams and wishes of so many ancestors whose work over the generations has led to today.

“I can think of no better way for graduates to honor those sacrifices than by using their knowledge to serve and advocate for and heal others through their work in the legal and health care professions.”