Me and My Regalia
It’s spring time! Time for young love, allergies—and commencement.
Last week, I once again put on my academic regalia. In terms of cost-per-wear, it is my most expensive item of clothing except for my wedding dress. I wear my regalia only at opening convocation in the fall and at closing convocation in the spring. Otherwise it remains zipped up in a garment bag on my office coat rack.
Regalia sounds quite posh as if it should involve a crown and scepter with an accompanying Valyrian steel sword. In fact, academic regalia has its origins in the woolen gown and hood of medieval European universities. My regalia includes a bright blue doctoral gown with black panels and three scarlet sleeve bars, a scarlet hood, and a black tam with a gold tassel. It’s bright and gaudy. And I love to wear it!
The first time I wore my regalia was at my own commencement. I remember slipping into it and singing the lyrics to an African-American spiritual: “I know my robe is gonna fit me well/You see, I tried it on at the gates of Hell.” While defending my dissertation was a relief, the ritual of commencement was a celebration for me and my family. I was the first in our family to earn a Ph.D. Although my family had heard the grisly tales of my trials in the doctoral program, commencement provided an opportunity for them to participate in my journey. They contributed to the purchase of my gown, and they witnessed my crossing over the Jordan when my name was called.
As I stepped up to receive take my diploma, although my immediate family was joyous, at that moment I was not an individual or a daughter, cousin, or niece but another beneficiary of the legacy of so many African Americans who sacrificed to ensure that their children had an education. As Anna Julia Cooper writes, “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me’” (capitals and italics original). I was taught that my victories are not mine alone but are shared with my community. As I processed out, I intended to join the generations of African-American scholars whose research and teaching contribute to the ongoing transformation of academia.
Now, as a faculty member, I wear my regalia at someone else’s commencement. I never saw an African-American woman on the stage at any of my graduation exercises. I do not consider myself to be a role model, but I know that representation matters. I hope that other little bookworms and misfits see me rocking my three scarlet bars and know that they can pursue the life of the mind as I have.
My diplomas are framed and hang in my office. I am now quite used to be being called “Doctor” or “Professor.” Yet, occasionally at commencement a family member or guest assumes that I am graduating and congratulates me, and it still feels good.