Black Harvard Graduate’s Poetic Speech Goes Viral

By Sheryl Estrada

Donovan Livingston

At Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education convocation ceremony, graduating student Donovan Livingston summed up the obstacles many Black people face in the education system, his experiences and his hope for the future in about five minutes of spoken-word poetry.The school shared a video on Facebook of Livingston delivering his poem “Lift Off,” and it has since gone viral with more than 11 million views as of Wednesday.

Livingston won an annual speech competition to be the student convocation speaker. A committee of faculty, staff and students narrowed down 29 entries to eight finalists who then delivered the speeches in person.

“I think it’s fair to say that the committee was immediately impressed with the beauty and urgency of both Donovan’s words and delivery,” Michael Rodman, Harvard’s assistant dean for communications and marketing, told DiversityInc on Tuesday. “He has shared an important and urgent message in a powerful way we couldn’t be happier that his words are being heard by millions.”

Livingston addressed 719 graduates, of which 29 percent were students of color, along with faculty, administration and guests on May 25. He began his spoken-word poem with a quote by education reformer Horace Mann and then went on to discuss how a Black student can feel at times in the classroom:

“For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time.

How many times must we be made to feel like quotas

Like tokens in coined phrases

‘Diversity. Inclusion.’

There are days I feel like one, like only alonely blossom in a briar patch of broken promises. But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice.”

In the poem, Livingston also says that he overcame such circumstances. He makes references to Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” which protested racism, in particular the lynching of African Americans, and poet Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred”:

“I stand here, a manifestation of love and pain, with veins pumping revolution. I am the strange fruit that grew too ripe for the poplar tree. I am a DREAM Act, Dream Deferred incarnate. I am a movement an amalgam of memories America would care to forget.”

Livingston gave a nod to abolitionist and humanitarian Harriet Tubman and described how some school systems have failed in helping children reach their potential:

“I look each of my students in the eyes,

And see the same light that aligned Orion’s Belt

And the pyramids of Giza.

I see the same twinkle

That guided Harriet to freedom.

I see them. Beneath their masks and mischief,

Exists an authentic frustration;

An enslavement to your standardized assessments.”

He ultimately explains to his fellow graduates that they have the power to help students excel: “At the core, none of us were meant to be common. We were born to be comets ”

And there’s much work to be done.

“Education is no equalizer rather, it is the sleep that precedes the American Dream. So wake up wake up! Lift your voices,” he said.

In addition to the Facebook post, which garnered millions of views, the school also posted the video on YouTube. View his speech in its entirety:

Livingston, a Fayetteville, North Carolina, native who graduated with his M.Ed. in learning and teaching, said he appreciates the attention his poem is getting.

“I had no idea the poem would be so well received, but I’m certainly grateful for all the positive attention that it’s been getting, whether it’s from Hillary Clinton or friends that I’ve grown up with my entire life,” he said in an interview. “It means the same to me that I was able to touch and inspire some folks for five minutes.”

Rodman told DiversityInc the school did not expect such an overwhelming response when posting the video on its Facebook page. The caption accompanying the video reads: “One of the most powerful, heartfelt student speeches you will ever hear!”

“I’m not sure anyone anticipates a response such as this,” he commented. “That said, we’re extremely grateful that Donovan’s words have had such a tremendous response.”

In regard to Livingston poetically expressing viewpoints on race and education, in the past year Harvard has been experiencing open dialogues on the topics.

A committee of Harvard Law School faculty, students, alumni and staff created a report and recommended to the Harvard Corporation on March 3 the school’s seal no longer be the official symbol of the law school.

Approved in 1936 as part of the university’s 300th anniversary, the seal contains the university’s motto “Veritas” and three bundles of wheat, a design based on the family crest of Isaac Royall Sr., an 18th century slaveholder who was known for his cruelty to slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations and Massachusetts farms.

In mid-March, the Harvard Corporation, which is one of the university’s governing boards, agreed to retire the seal and said the law school should propose a new symbol that better represents its values in time for its bicentennial in 2017.

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