SATURDAY MORNING I arrived at Savannah State University’s Tiger Arena at 9:20 a.m., plenty early to get a good seat for the 10:00 a.m. start of SSU’s 172nd Commencement.
My friend Vaida Morgan, graduating Summa Cum Laude in Mass Communications, advised me of the best spot to sit for a clear view of her and her fellow graduates—219 in all, according to local news reports.
Had the basketball court been installed on the arena floor instead of carpeting, I would have been at the center line, about halfway up the stands. From this vantage point I saw plenty—a tale of Savannah’s ROTC history; a sprinkling of apathy from elected officials; a couple of hundred forward thinking independently-minded students; and an arena overflowing onto the grass outside with enthusiasm, joy, pride and love.
The family sitting to my left drove to town Friday night from Palatka, Fla., to see their niece graduate. The woman on my right sang along by heart to the university alma mater, whispering that when she graduated they sang to SSC instead of SSU.
SSC alumnus Major General Walter Gaskin, USMC, gave a fairly inspiring commencement address, talking mostly about the SSU NROTC program, its history of commissioning over 200 officers into the U.S. military, and its foundation for his career.
As the grads moved smoothly across the stage to receive their diplomas, SSU President Earl G. Yarbrough Sr. hugged every one of them, including several young men who burst into celebratory gymnastics-style dance moves on the platform.
After all had received their diplomas, Willie Walker, SSU Alumni Association president, launched the graduating class through an oath to join the association.
“Please repeat after me,” he said. “I, and please state your name.”
To which all the graduates responded with a knowing smirk: “I, and please state your name.”
The post graduation atmosphere outside the arena was festive. Because taking a step in any direction ran the risk of blocking a family photo op, it was easier and more fun to stay put, watching two African-style dancers spin to the drumming of Akin Lowman and an SSU professor. When the drumming ended, nine nattily-attired brothers of Omega Psi Phi fraternity broke into a spontaneous, several-minute long step dance routine. Two were graduates, their robes flying, and one wore a fully buttoned business suit.
As a mostly life-long Savannahian with a streak of liberal smugness about the so-called diversity of my life, I expected to see many familiar faces in Saturday’s crowd, despite the facts that SSU is a historically black university and I am white.
Well, at Saturday’s assembly I saw no one I knew until the friends of Vaida gathered after the ceremony -- even though about a third of SSU’s graduates were from the local area, and even though most attendees in the overflowing arena looked to be middle aged or older professional types. Also present was a sizeable minority of college-age adults and a generous sprinkling of children.
It’s rare that I find myself seeing no familiar faces in Chatham County, but there it was, proof that I’m mostly living on the white side of the street, despite my inclination toward a “hands across the water” attitude.
The same week that all kinds of frightening news surfaced about life and safety problems in Savannah’s majority-black public schools, these 219 students, all but a handful African American, collected degrees in 28 different fields.
Among them were graduates in accounting, computer science, behavior analysis (whatever that is), political science, chemistry, mathematics, biology, and even those dear-to-my-heart liberal arts classics: history and English.
Time and again I’ve heard white Savannahians ask “Where is the African-American community?” when discussing cultural and civic involvement. Well, here they were, celebrating the achievements of their children, their siblings, their friends. And, I found myself asking on Saturday morning, where is the Savannah white community?
Sure, the commencement ceremony is for those who are invited. I guess most blacks and most whites don’t know each other well enough to attend such functions. After all, this was my first SSU commencement despite a lifetime in the city.
I suspect that most of the area’s elected officials, black and white, received some sort of invitation from the university. Yet when President Yarborough asked all elected officials present to stand and be recognized, State Senator Regina Thomas was the only politician in the audience.
Those elected types who opted not to attend missed a chance to see something beyond what was visible from my seat at the center court line. Perhaps next year they’ll get there early and grab a good seat.