‘The best HBCU commencement address ever’?

Many say Clark Atlanta University graduation speech to graduates is going viral for all the right reasons
Daniel Black, an associate professor of African American studies at Clark Atlanta University, delivers the commencement address at the school on May 18, 2024. (Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendree

Credit: Ben Hendree

Daniel Black, an associate professor of African American studies at Clark Atlanta University, delivers the commencement address at the school on May 18, 2024. (Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Before delivering the 35th commencement address at his alma mater, Clark Atlanta University, Daniel Black joked that, unlike some other speakers at nearby campuses, he wasn’t a celebrity. Black simply hoped his reputation on campus and love for CAU would come through.

The associate professor of African American studies and author delivered, and then some.

Many are saying May 18 address is going viral for all of the right reasons.

A video of the address posted by HBCU Gameday titled, “Is this the best HBCU Commencement Address Ever?” has over 125,000 views on YouTube in two days. Black’s speech came nearly 24 hours before President Joe Biden stood in front of Morehouse College graduates. By comparison, Biden’s commencement talk has over 37,000 views on Morehouse’s official YouTube channel.

In just over 15 minutes, the educator delivers an impassioned masterclass in oratory skills, rooted in the Black tradition, speaking directly to the students.

“Here they come y’all. Here they come,” Black began, echoing the words of the hip-hop classic “The Choice is Yours.”

“Here they come y’all. Here they come. Here they come y’all. Here they come,” he continued, his voice rising. “Doctors, lawyers, writers, business owners, teachers, healers, rappers, preachers. Here they come y’all. Here they come.”

He called Clark Atlanta “home of the Holy Ghost,” who wants to see its students win despite challenges in and outside the classroom.

“Some of y’all sitting here, people doubted you, but here you are anyway,”” Black said. “Somebody said, ‘No way,’ but the Holy Ghost said “Hell yeah!”

Black’s speech references the rich history of CAU graduates such as Kenya Barris, Mary Frances Early, Pinky Cole Hayes, Fletcher Henderson, Kenny Leon, Harry Pace and its current president, George T. French Jr. It’s easy to lose count of how many times the latter stands up from his seat near Black during the address to either tap his shoulder in approval, nod in agreement or simply stare in awe.

That feeling extended to social media where the response to Black’s speech is overwhelmingly positive.

The messages in Black’s speech hit home for non-students, too.

The speech channels the past, challenging students to honor the legacy of CAU graduates and other Black changemakers.

“Listen, if Harriet Tubman ran to freedom, you can run to your destiny ...” he said. “Martin Luther King didn’t march for you to get a degree and chill. Bayard Rustin didn’t organize so you could clap for him. Black folks didn’t pick cotton so you could look cute in a Black robe. Shirley Chisholm didn’t run for president so you could run away from adversity.”

Leading up to his commencement address at CAU, Black told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he wanted to keep the focus on celebrating students. Amidst unrest across college campuses across the country, he didn’t feel a pressure or obligation to speak on the war between Hamas and Israel.

In his speech, Black takes the time to share his own story about coming to the campus in 1984 and graduating four years later. Magna cum laude, he said with emphasis. He reiterated his commitment to the young scholars.

“We teach here because Black excellence is our hobby. It’s our daily bread. It’s our living water. It’s our reason for waking up in the morning. We teach here because every day we come to work and we see God,” he said.

Black closed out his speech with a nod to the present rap beef to Kendrick Lamar and Drake. First quoting the chorus from Lamar’s song “Not Like Us,” by proclaiming, “There’s other schools, but they not like us.”

He later added, “This ain’t no trick, we gotta do better than Drake and Kendrick. We standin’ on business!”

Since his speech, Black says his life has changed.

Students outside of CAU, children and seniors are reaching out about how inspiring his words are to them. He got a call from U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., thanking him for the inspiration. Messages are coming in from all over the world, and so are the speaking requests.

He spent almost two weeks working on the speech. In less than 24 hours he received hundreds of messages from Black youth sharing their intentions to attend an HBCU after seeing him talk. He also says seniors who lived through segregation are thanking him for speaking to their struggles and triumphs.

Now that the video has captured an international audience, Black hopes viewers will see what through to his initial point.

“The truth of the matter is that the world is behind. Black people and Black colleges have been doing excellence for a long time,” he said. “It’s good to see the rest of the world catch up and recognize it.”