CAMBRIDGE — In his first year at Harvard, Duwain Pinder recalled listening as a professor struggled to explain why the officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., was not charged. Months later, he was reviewing notes on the ethics of public office as he watched replays of the killing of Walter Scott, another unarmed black man shot by an officer in North Charleston, S.C.
“The overwhelming question during this first year at Harvard was: how can I survive in a world that seems not to value my life?” Pinder told fellow graduates Tuesday at Harvard’s first universitywide commencement ceremony for black students.
But despite continued police killings of black men, and disheartening political change, “we have survived,” Pinder declared, as the crowd of black graduates in crimson-and-black caps and robes erupted in cheers and applause. “Just look at us.”
The student-run commencement ceremony was a celebration of the achievements and an acknowledgment of the struggles of black students who have completed their journey through one of the most prestigious universities in the world, one where just 5 percent of the degrees went to black students in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available.
The event, called Black Commencement 2017, drew several hundred graduates to the lawn in front of Harvard Law School’s library, two days before the university’s official commencement in Harvard Yard, which the students also plan to attend. The event was open to all, but few white students attended.
Unlike the clichéd send-offs often delivered at commencements, the speeches at this event spoke to the political and social concerns that students of color face at an elite institution.
“People say that Harvard is a bubble, as if we do not live in the real world,” said Kyrah Malika Daniels, who is receiving a PhD in African and African-American studies. “Yes and no. The reality is that those of us whose skins reflects all the beautiful shades of black and brown do not have the luxury of living in a bubble, for we are eternally visible to the harsh external world.”
Pinder warned that black Harvard graduates can be wielded as political symbols by those who would argue that their success shows racism doesn’t exist.
“They will try to craft our stories as examples of the benefits of personal responsibility, as proof that the American dream exists for all, instead of just a select few,” he said. “But we know better.” He added that the graduates’ success should not be used to undercut changes that could help the broader black community.
“We are not the few smart black people. We are not the exceptions,” said Pinder, a graduate of the business school and the Kennedy School. “We only represent a fraction of the black brilliance that lies beneath the surface, just waiting to come out.”
The commencement came as the university has sought to acknowledge its own role in the country’s history of racial oppression.
Last year, Drew Faust, Harvard’s president, and Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon, unveiled a plaque commemorating four slaves who had been owned by Harvard presidents. The university also agreed to redesign the Harvard Law School shield, which was modeled on the family crest of an 18th-century slaveholder.
Michael Huggins, a Kennedy School student who helped organize the event, made a point of honoring the slaves, as well as the black alumni who blazed the first paths through the university and the families who supported the students’ education.
“Our families have had to overcome everything, from Jim Crow segregation, to poverty, to an oppressive criminal justice system,” Huggins told the graduates. “Yet we still persist.”
Each graduate was presented at the ceremony with a stole accented with African kente cloth, as a symbol of their heritage.
Although the mood was joyous, with students smiling, laughing, and posing for pictures, several speakers recalled the ignorant comments they have heard on campus.
“We have patiently explained that Africa is not a country,” Pinder said. “We have sat through inaccurate and incomplete discussions of our history. We have endured the constant questioning and the legitimacy of our capacity. And yet: Here we are.”
Daniels said the challenge for black graduates will be to translate the knowledge they gained at Harvard into broader social change.
“As we return to our communities from this Ivy League ocean, we may carry pearls of wisdom about new pedagogical methods,” she told the graduates. “But may we also recall the knowledge shared for generations on the front porch or the back stoop, our first classrooms. We may encourage our families to eat organic, but may we remember that grandmama was cooking kale long before it was cool.”
The Rev. Jay Williams, a pastor at Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End, who is receiving a PhD in religion, brought his sister and four members of his church to watch him walk across the stage and don his kente cloth stole. After the ceremony, he said he was thrilled with the positive energy in the crowd.
“We’re in the midst of so much degradation of blackness in the world today, from the shooting of unarmed black folks to the struggles across the country and the world,” Williams said. “To be able to come together and celebrate achievement, and a commitment to the uplift of all people of color, is really important.”