It was a striking image, even if the subject’s pose and attire were familiar: Gorgeously dressed in bright white sneakers and a flowing blue gown, the young person stood tall, a glowing city behind him. It’s a picture-perfect example of a street-style shot. But instead of a lit-up Paris, it was St. Paul lit up with police floodlights. He was wearing his graduation gown, there to witness, support, and speak out against the police brutality, white supremacy, and anti-Black forces that have made his graduation an unspeakably tragic one.
“I was looking forward to graduating with a cap and gown,” Deveonte Joseph told me over the phone. The seventh sibling out of ten, Joseph is the first in his family to graduate high school with a diploma, an incredibly hard-won and meaningful achievement.
“It’s been hard. I’ve fought through it, but I did it. I graduated. We graduates from 2020 are going through all this. And it’s not fair, because there are a lot of people who wish to be in that crowd, and walk across that stage, and wear that gown, and throw up your cap with everybody,” Joseph said, explaining that his graduation, scheduled for this week, will be modified to observe social distancing procedures — “a car meet-up and drive around the city or something.”
During a time that should be marked by graduation celebrations, another kind of observance is taking place. Across the country, in the middle of a pandemic that necessitated rigid stay-at-home measures, demonstrations and protests have erupted in nearly every major American city against anti-Black criminal justice systems and anti-Black federal and state institutions. This weekend, young Black people have had to choose between demonstrating against the apparatuses that disproportionately kill them or staying at home to avoid a virus that also disproportionately kills them.
One day after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, the protests spread across the river to St. Paul. Before stepping out, Joseph took out his graduation robes, still fresh from their packaging. “When I put on the gown, I felt like I really accomplished something big. My brother always told me that not a lot of African Americans even reach my age. It’s a big accomplishment to graduate high school.” Then, he headed out for the evening. The photo that local street photographer Nathan Aguirre took shows Joseph as a resolute, tassel-clad figure set against the backdrop of a grieving St. Paul; his cap and gown speak to America’s pure potential as well as our failure to fulfill the promises we make to our youth.
From Dallas to San Francisco, New Jersey to Minneapolis, the cap and gown have become an especially impressive reminder of the resilience of Black excellence, and all the systems, people, and policies at work to undermine it. “As we were walking, cops jumped out of a van and aimed their guns at me and my friends, and put a red dot on our chests.” Minneapolis graduate Datelle Straub told photographer David Guttenfelder, who captured Straub and his friends in maroon graduation gowns. Straub held up his diploma from Patrick Henry High School to defend himself. “It’s just frustrating that they are OK with killing the future.”
Last Friday, in San Francisco, Louis Michael, a new graduate from MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, was planning on joining some friends to protest. Before he left, he received a notification that an Amazon delivery had arrived. “It was my cap and gown. I had originally planned on wearing my BLM T-shirt and blending in,” Michael recalled. But when he put on his cap and gown, Michael felt a stirring of feelings. “I felt sad that this is what we’ve come to as a country. But at the same time, I’m proud because I know I’m getting ready to go out and stand up for what I believe in. To stand in front of a line of police officers in riot gear, with my fist in the air, and my cap and gown… I felt powerful.” A photo of a masked-up Michael in his graduation threads on top of a Black Lives Matter shirt, shot by photojournalist Sarahbeth Maney, went viral. “A picture is worth a thousand words. This one’s worth a million,” he says.
Graduations mark one’s passage from dependency to independence. Worn on a grassy lawn or in a crowded auditorium, a cap and gown symbolizes the fulfillment of a course of study, and the opportunity to enter the world empowered by all the knowledge that has been acquired. Graduation is also a promise: If you follow the path you’ve been told you must take, the world will be open to you, for whatever you want to do.
But, the idea that graduation is the starting line of the American Dream only makes sense if you trust that “responsible” actions necessarily result in “deserved” consequences — that hard and honest work will be rewarded in fair and just ways. For Black Americans, this contract has always been crooked. What’s unwritten and unspoken has always upended any promise made.
Go to college. Get a high-paying job. Buy a home. Enter into a life of insurmountable debt. High-paying jobs discriminate against Black applicants, and you will likely have to make compromises. Feel perpetually uncertain about your employment and financial stability.
The taxes you pay will fund social services that keep you healthy and safe. You will pay proportionally more taxes than billionaires, but the benefits you receive will be inadequate, dangerous, and unfairly distributed. State-funded hospitals will kill your women. State-funded law enforcement will kill your men.
Abide by the law. The police will protect your civil right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But being Black is also a crime. The audacity to exist is reason enough to turn police protection into police predation.)
Vote. This is how you can change the world. Black disenfranchisement is real. Our two-party system makes it nearly impossible for consequential progress to be made.
Who would willingly sign a contract like this? But we force everyone born or naturalized in this country to do it, which is why — during a week and a season and a lifetime of watching the subtext come further into focus — we feel renewed anger at the code by which we’ve been forced to live, a sense of bewilderment at the double-binds that that trap us. “So much that used to be in the dark to most of America is coming into the light in America,” explained Michaels, who graduated with a communications degree. “Some have been aware of this, a lot hadn’t. 2020 has made it clear to everyone.”
Contracts can be changed. As a photographer, Aguirre has documented the rapid developments to his neighborhood, for both better and worse. As someone who exists in a state of flux, he ultimately sees the story of the past week as a hopeful one. “It’s a story of persistence. People aren’t backing down. It’s the revolution. There’s a lot of love for the community, and we’re all coming together to say that it’s time for the system to change. It has to change. This can’t not.”
Joseph’s last day of high school is today. His mother, Yvette, was supposed to take him shopping this week for new sneakers, but with stores in their neighborhood closed because of the demonstrations and the pandemic, he’ll likely wear something random he already owns. “But I tell him it’s not his clothes that’s what makes him,” Yvette told me. “It’s his mind, soul, and heart.”
Joseph cannot afford college in the fall, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a plan. “I’ve been planning since my junior year. I want to go to school for music and art. I want to spend the positive energy I have, and give people the motivation and inspiration to accomplish their dreams.” He currently has a fundraiser to get him started this fall.
“I have a slogan with my art: TNIS, Turn nothing into something. That’s what I do. That’s the future.”
May we feel inspired by Joseph’s resolute optimism, his creativity, his excellence. May those who have provided Joseph with all that nothingness feel shame and the full crush of that responsibility.