Dr. Daniel Black thought the 2024 graduating class at Clark Atlanta University would have preferred a celebrity for the commencement speaker. What students got was an inspiriting and energetic message from the professor of African American studies

Dr. Daniel Black thought the 2024 graduating class at Clark Atlanta University would have preferred a celebrity for the commencement speaker. What students got was an inspiriting and energetic message from the professor of African American studies. Black’s speech was so well received, it went viral. He recently joined GPB’s Pamela Kirkland to talk about the speech and the lasting impact he hopes it will have.



Pamela Kirkland: It's Morning Edition. During graduation season, we often see celebrities and politicians give advice to graduates before they embark on their post-college careers. But one address this year inspired more than just the students who were listening. In fact, some are calling this speech the best HBCU commencement address ever.

Daniel Black (speaking at commencement): This the home of the Holy Ghost, the last and the foremost. The East and the West Coast. God's mighty guidepost. The potatoes and the rump roast. The coffee and the black toast. If you need heaven in your view, you gotta get yourself to C-A-U..

Pamela Kirkland: That was Dr. Daniel Black. He's an associate professor of African American studies at Clark Atlanta University. And Dr. Black joins me now. Welcome to Morning Edition.

Daniel Black: Thank you very much. I appreciate being here.

Pamela Kirkland: So, I have to start by asking you, were you expecting this kind of reaction to your speech?

Daniel Black: Absolutely not. You know, the truth of the matter is I was just hoping it would work. I was hoping that it would be well-received. And I was prepared to sit down and go home. But it has just been something miraculous. It's just been something marvelous. And not only did folks at Clark Atlanta respond well, the whole nation has responded beautifully. And it's really been a dream come true.

Credit: CAU

Pamela Kirkland: When you sat down to write the speech, what were you hoping that students were going to take from it?

Daniel Black: What I really wanted was for students to be proud not just of a degree, but to be proud of the place from which it came. I wanted students to be excited about being in the legacy of Clark Atlanta University. I wanted them to know several of our alumni, but I wanted them to have their kind of chests poked out, if you will, and not because they were comparing themselves to someone else or not because they were putting some other school down. But just because of the magic and the excellence of what Clark Atlanta is all by itself. Yeah. So that's really what I was looking forward to.

Pamela Kirkland: And you joked at some point that the students probably would have preferred to have some kind of celebrity.

Daniel Black: Oh, yes. I mean, you know, Biden was at Morehouse. Angela Bassett was at Spelman. And then me, you know, and of course, most folks didn't know my name at that time. And I said, you know, there's so much at stake here. I was like, "Lord, this has just got to go well." And I think God came through for me.

Pamela Kirkland: It was the three B's. So you had Biden, you had Bassett, you had Dr. Black.

Daniel Black: I didn't even think of that! Yeah.

Pamela Kirkland: Did you feel the pressure to perform? Was that an added pressure for you in terms of you want to deliver for the students? But you also want to give a great speech, knowing that there are so many other people speaking at the AUC colleges this year?

Daniel Black: You know, to be honest, I'm not sure I felt that. I don't know that I felt pressure because of the other speakers. I think most of the pressure I felt was from myself. I wanted to represent Clark Atlanta well, because a sitting faculty being chosen to be the commencement speaker is a very, very, very rare thing that almost never, ever happens. And so, in this case, the fact that it did happen, I wanted to make my president proud — Dr. George French. I wanted to represent other faculty at Clark Atlanta, other faculty at HBCUs in general. I really wanted to make a statement about the quality and the excellence of teachers at HBCUs who are there not because we can't be anywhere else, but because we simply want to be, and because we believe in the mission and project.

Pamela Kirkland: And I have to say, what struck me also about the speech was just the energy that you brought to it. It had such this great pace to it.

Daniel Black: Yeah.

Pamela Kirkland: And I read in another interview that you said that you really did want to focus on keeping the speech short and sweet.

Daniel Black: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Pamela Kirkland: You knew that students didn't want to sit there and have someone opines to them.

Daniel Black: Oh, you know, I've been in 30 commencements now, and students are always ready to go. You know, commencement day, it's like, "Say something quick and get out of the way." Students want their degrees; their families are here. They gather, folks want to go eat and celebrate. It's their day. I get it, you know, no problem. So I said, "I've got to say something quickly, and I got to get out of the way." But the students were so unbelievably responsive. They were just so — but the truth of the matter, is that I was talking to them, directly to them. I don't mean just kind of, you know, inadvertently. I mean, I was talking directly to the magical students at Clark Atlanta University, because I believe after four years — a lot of them came through the pandemic — I believed they deserved the moment. And there were folks who asked me if I was going to in any way talk about Israel and Palestine. And I said, "No, not at all," because this is these Black students’ moment, and this is what they've earned. And they are due every single second of this speech. And so I gave them the time.

Pamela Kirkland: And this was a special class that graduated because this was, as you mentioned, a college career that was rocked by a pandemic —

Daniel Black: That's right. That's right.

Pamela Kirkland: — and a global conflict. And you basically led with inspiration for them coming out of such a gloomy time.

Daniel Black: Absolutely. And I deserve — I believe that they deserved a resurrection, if you will. I believe that they deserved the spotlight just for a few minutes because they survived and they thrived and they graduated. And, you know, for so many of them, that was gargantuan. You know, that was just a colossal effort. And so I'm just so proud of them. Of course, I've been on the faculty at Clark Atlanta for 30 years now, and so many of them were in my classes. But so many of the other ones I just know from, you know, being on campus. And to have watched them mature and matriculate in this way was just the greatest joy. And being chosen to deliver — to deliver the speech for their graduation was, I think, just something a faculty member dreams up.

Pamela Kirkland: I have to ask about the Kendrick Lamar quote. 

(Kendrick Lamar lyrics): "They not like us. They not like us. They not like us." —

Pamela Kirkland: Hip-Hop references that you sprinkled in there. Where did those come from?

Daniel Black: Well, you know, I'm a little bit of a hip hop head. Now, just a little. It's just a little bit. And I sorta kind of been paying attention to the Drake/Kendrick tension. And a lot of it is because students have been telling me about it, you know. And what I wanted to do more than anything is use that moment as a way of teaching Black kids that we can have tensions, but let's not have enemies.

(Daniel Black — speaking at commencement): There are other schools around, but they not like us. Good schools, great schools, but they not like us. This is CAU: the proud, the few, the place where excellence debust. They not like us.

Daniel Black: We can have tension. But let's not — Let's not make each other pay for being different, for thinking something differently from what you might believe. And I'm — I'm kind of hoping, to be honest ,that this will get back to Kendrick and Drake and that they might even, from this, be inspired to amend their differences. It's worth it.

Pamela Kirkland: Dr. Daniel Black is an associate professor of African American studies at Clark Atlanta University. Thank you for joining me on Morning Edition.

Daniel Black: Thank you for having me.