‘We are here. We lead. We excel’ — Welcome to Black Grad 2024

All the graduating students and attending faculty members pose for a huge group picture on stage at the 2024 Black Excellence Graduation Celebration.

The third annual Black Excellence graduation celebration was bigger and more vibrant than ever. (Photo by Matt Clarke, McMaster University)

“To paraphrase Beyonce: We get it from our mamas and papas.”
— Nigela Purboo, co-founder and executive director, Onyx Initiative 

From start to finish, this year’s Black Excellence graduation celebration honoured not only the graduating class of 2024, but also their families, friends and communities.

Inspired by the African concept of Sankofa — the wisdom of learning from the past for a brighter future — Black Grad gave students a joyful and emotional opportunity to reflect on where they’re coming from and where they’re going.

Two men playing big drums slung around their necks on stage.
Drummers from Afiwi Groove School play djembe drums on stage after leading the stage party and graduating students into the 2024 Black Excellence Graduation Celebration.

In graduation festivities unlike any other held at First Ontario Concert Hall, the celebration began with pulsating traditional djembe drumbeats, as Afiwi Groove School drummers led the procession of academics and students through the concert hall, where friends and families were seated.

Professor emeritus Gary Warner opened the ceremony. Warner, who was McMaster’s first Black faculty member when he was hired in the 1960s, reminded students that they are surrounded by, and supported by, a network of Black excellence.

Gary Warner speaking at the lecturn on a graduation stage
Professor Emeritus Gary Warner opens the 2024 Black Excellence Graduation Celebration.

“You can feel — you can hear! — the excitement in the room on this day of celebration and recognition of Black student success and Black achievement at McMaster University,” said Warner, who has spearheaded many initiatives to open doors for racialized students and faculty, and is an executive member of the African-Caribbean Faculty Association at McMaster.

Keynote speaker Nigela Purboo spoke of how the spirit of Sankofa is at the heart of the work she and her husband, Mac graduate Wayne Purboo, do through the Onyx Initiative, which works with Black students and graduates and corporations and other institutions to close a gap in recruitment and employment.  

Nigela Purboo speaking at the lecturn on stage during convocation.
Onyx initiative executive director Nigela Purboo delivers the keynote speech at the 2024 Black Excellence Graduation Celebration.

“Our lives are a testament to the resilience and tenacity that we inherited from our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, as well as the countless stories we have heard about our unstoppable, relentless Black ancestors by blood and by bonds,” said Purboo, who is executive director of Onyx.

Those ancestors faced seemingly insurmountable odds, racism, strife and adversity, Purboo said.

“Still they rose, and endured it all, so that the generations that followed could have more. Do more. Be more.”

faith Ogunkoya and Malicka Lawrence smile for aphoto
Black student Association co-president Malikca Lawrence, seen here with BSSC manager Faith Ogunkoya, is one of this year’s recipients of the President’s Awards for Student Leadership.

Black student Association co-president Malikca Lawrence spoke of the Black Student Success Centre as a “refuge” where she found community and forged strong bonds.

“Signing in” at the BSSC started out as a fitting reminder of how the class of 2024 began their degrees — signing in online, during a pandemic — but is now a symbol of something more important, she said.

“Signing in means stating who you are. Knowing who you are,” she said. “We are here. We lead. We excel. We dominate.”

A woman receives her Kente stole from Mac Grad Leo Johnson on stage at the 2024 Black Excellence Graduation Celebration.

Organized by the Black Student Success Centre, the celebration of graduating Black students and their accomplishments has grown considerably since the inaugural event in 2022.

“I am blown away each year by how many faculty, staff and students say ‘Yes’ to volunteering to pull this off,” said BSSC manager Faith Ogunkoya, who chairs the planning commitee of people from departments across campus.

“That remains a clear sign of how much this celebration means to the entire McMaster and Hamilton community. Dr. Clare Warner and I remain moved by that commitment.”

A man wearing a graduation gown and Kente Stole crosses the stage at the 2024 Black Excellence Graduation Celebration.

More students registered this year, and the audience was bigger, too.

One student had a cheering squad of at least seven people. “I could’ve brought more people, but they had to work!”

The sense of pride and belonging was so strong, it was hard to tell which audience members were there for which student — people whistled, cheered, applauded and roared their appreciation for every single student who went up on stage to proudly say their name and have a traditional Kente stole placed around their neck.

Jackie Richardson stretches her hand out as she hits a high note on stage at the 2024 Black Excellence Graduation Celebration.

Near the end of the event, the audience and stage party were on their feet, clapping, grooving and singing along as renowned singer and actor Jackie Richardson belted out Young, Gifted and Black, an anthem of empowerment inspired by Lorraine Hansbury’s play A Raisin in the Sun.

The ceremony closed with graduating students dancing their way on to the stage after violinist Alador Bereketab, a third-year student at McMaster, closed out the ceremony with tunes like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Lean on Me.

A group of students in gowns and Kente stoles smile for a group photo

Two students outdoors wearing gowns and stoles take a selfie

Two students in gowns and Kente stoles pose with flowers. A family picture of a graduating student, his parents and brother

Smiling graduate and two supporters

Seen from over a woman's shoulder, she's looking at her phone and taking a picture.

A graduating student and her cheering squad of 8 people.
Turnout was higher than ever for this year’s Black Excellence Graduation Celebration.
Marielle Lubula, winner of the BSSC Spirit of Resilience Award, with her parents. “I don’t say ‘congratulations,’ I say CONGRADUATIONS!” her dad joked. Then he made her cry by talking about how proud he is of her.

DJ Andre Clarke kept the reception moving.