Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Custom Of Decorating Graduation Caps Among Black University Graduates In The United States (comments & videos)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post presents selected comments from an online discussion thread about the custom of graduates in the United States decorating their graduation cap (mortar board).

Videos of Black American university students wearing decorated graduation caps are also included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are featured in these videos. Thanks also all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.

As a result of my admittedly rather limited research on this subject, it appears that in the United States the custom of decorating graduation caps (mortar boards i.e. "an academic cap with a stiff, flat, square top and a tassel") occurred as early as "the 1970s" [Read discussion thread comments that are found below]. I'm not sure which racial group in the United States was the first to decorate their graduation caps.

The fact that the embedded videos in this pancocojams post focus on Black graduates in the United States isn't meant to imply that decorating graduation caps is an African American custom only. On the contrary, there are lots of online articles, discussion thread comments, and YouTube videos that imply or document that a number of White American high school and university graduates have worn decorated graduation caps.

In 2014 when I searched YouTube to find videos of Black students in the United States wearing kente cloth stoles in their graduation ceremonies*, I didn't notice any Black graduates with decorated caps. However, when I visited YouTube this week in search of videos of Black cultural graduation ceremonies, I was struck by the number of Black graduates from certain universities in the United States who wore decorated caps.

Although Black American high school graduates may also decorate their graduation caps, I haven't found any YouTube videos (as of this date) of Black high school graduates wearing decorated caps. For that reason, the video portion of this pancocojams post focuses on showcasing examples of Black American university graduates with decorated graduation caps.

*That above mentioned 2014 pancocojams post is entitled "Wearing Kente Cloth Stoles During Graduation"

Note that in my search for video documentation for this post, I happened upon a 2013 Black graduation video that includes a decorated graduation cap. That video is given as Example #1 below.

DISCLAIMER: This pancocojams post doesn't mean to imply that all or most Black students in the United States who have graduated from universities by at least 2014* have decorated graduation caps. [*2014 was the year that I published a post on Black graduating students wearing a kente cloth stole for their graduation or being given ("donned" with) a kente cloth stole during a graduation ceremony. Most of the videos that are embedded in that post are dated before 2014.]

Instead, I think that whether a Black student in the United States graduating from a university decorates her or his graduating cap depends in large measure on which university/college she or he attends. And I'm not sure what the criteria are that differentiates the universities where Black students decorate graduation caps from the universities where Black students don't follow this custom. For example, I don't think that you can separate these categories between whether the universities are HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) or PWI ( [historically and present day] Predominately White Institutions).

For example, here are two 2017 YouTube videos of Black graduation ceremonies in the United States and one 2018 YouTube video which showed no Black graduates wearing decorated caps: 2017 "Clark Atlanta University Commencement Procession" "First Ever Black Graduation at Harvard 2017"

and "Chadwick Boseman urges students to fight discrimination in Howard University commencement speech"

Clark Atlanta and Howard are HBCUs and Harvard is a PWI.

I also am unable to ascertain whether Black graduating university students who are members of a historically Black Greek letter fraternity or sorority are more likely to wear decorated graduating caps post 2014. My guess is that this depends on whether the custom of wearing decorated caps has permeated the university that the student is graduating from.

In contrast, in almost all of the post 2014 YouTube videos that I've watched of Black students in the United States graduating from universities (and I've watched a lot of those videos) the graduating Black students wore one and often two or more kente cloth stoles. Furthermore, usually the color combination for that kente cloth stole or one of those kente cloth stoles was the pan-African colors of red, green, and gold along with the color black.


These comments are numbered for referencing purposes only. I'm particularly interested in comments about when this custom may have begun and the reasons commenters give for this custom .

These commenters included no racial or ethnic identifiers in their comments.

Excerpt #1:
From When did this trend start??

1. by mmc51264, MSN, RN
"I finished my BSN in March, but I walked yesterday. What is with the over the top decorating of the mortar boards? When I got my ADN, many of my classmates decorated theirs, but I saw some outrageous, and some very unprofessional ones at that. Not just nursing. They split up the different colleges and the Health Sciences walked with Education. I have walked 4 other times and don't remember this from a few years ago."

2. May 9, '15 by Been there,done that
"Graduation is a personal experience. Some choose to make it a celebration."

3. May 9, '15 by mmc51264, MSN, RN
"yes, but to put "i busted mine to save yours" on a mortar board is really unprofessional. Maybe it's just me, but graduation is a life changing event and it just seems to cheapen it. I saw one hat that had about 30 pink plastic flowers glued to it. Not sure what the point of that was. All I know is that I have never seen this until the last 3 or so years. I walked in 93, 95, 05 12 and 15 and didn't see it until '12. I guess I am old-fashioned"

4. May 10, '15 by Guy in Babyland, BSN, RN
"When I graduated with my first Bachelor's degree 25 yrs ago from a large university, all my family could see was a sea of blue gowns and mortar boards. There was no way they could pick me out. A few years later, my ex graduated from the same school. When she graduated, she marked the top of her mortar board so that we could identify her in the crowd. Very few others did the same. I think that over the years graduates have become more and more over the top, that it has become excessive."

5. May 10, '15 by dirtyhippiegirl, BSN, RN
"I just kinda figured it was an easy way for your family to pick you out of the crowd. Are people who tie stuff to their suitcases special snowflakes as well?

My siblings all graduated in the 90s and early 2000s and I saw this all over the place. Even at my brother's hooding ceremony. (Where my mom almost punched a protesting Westboro Baptist member. RIP mom abd and happy Mother's Day.)"


6. May 10, '15 by AZBlueBell, ADN, RN
"I've only ever known about people decorating the hats for graduation starting with my oldest brother graduating from high school (a long time ago). Sure some people choose not to but I've never been to a graduation where NO ONE did it. Mostly, they do it so their friends and family can see them in the sea of other graduates.

I hate graduations and I think they are pointless. Just give me my degree and I want out. I didn't walk for high school (finished my credits early so I could move on with life!) and I doubt I'll walk for my nursing school graduation either. It's too much fuss and I don't care for it."

7. May 10, '15 by nurseprnRN
"Hell, they've been doing this at graduation at the Tercentenary Theater (otherwise known as Harvard Yard) for years, decades. My first husband graduated in 1972 and they did it then. The Law School often appends sharks, the Dental School often uses toothbrushes, one year Pubic Health and Medicine used condoms (consensually), the Education and Divinity schools do theirs variably. You get the idea.

Although undergrads getting ABs attend graduation in the Yard, they have their recognition ceremonies back at their Houses, and since the crowds are much smaller I don't know if they decorate them.

I've seen some pretty good ones in the newspaper covering all the college and university graduations in the Boston area. MIT's are usually the cleverest. I kinda like it.

As for me, I didn't get to walk for my BS (moved out of town the week before) or my MN (had a baby). I get to attend another college's graduation almost every year, but they're in uniform (Maritime Academy) and there is no Bedazzling."

8. May 10, '15 by Not_A_Hat_Person, RN
Quote from Anonymous865
I was also complaining about cow bells, air horns, whistles, and yelling from the audience when their special snowflake's name was announced. It didn't matter that the dean had asked the audience to hold their applause until all graduates had been announced so all names could be heard.
At my little sister's undergrad graduation, one sorority started cheering and blowing air horns as soon as a member approached the stage, before their name was read."


9. May 10, '15 by PulselessNine
"That's been going on forever. I saw some crazy stuff 30 years ago when watching my aunt graduate. I'm hoping I can come up with something as entertaining for those in the audience to watch. Don't take it too seriously."

10. May 11, '15 by No Stars In My Eyes
"Never have heard of this trend nor witnessed it. It seems to me that the mere fact of graduating is a good excuse/reason to feel positively giddy, so what the heck. Plenty of time to "be professional" once you start a job. Graduation is a kind of blow-out event, don't you think?
But I do think the audience is rude for using air horns, etc."

11. May 11, '15 by SweenyG, BSN, RN
"It wasn't done as much in the 1980s when I first graduated, but I did decorate the hell out of it for my BSN last year. I have also been to four college graduations of my sons where the kids decorated their mortar boards. IMHO--graduations are joyous celebrations and should include a little silliness and humor just expresses that so well!"

12. May 11, '15 by hopefulRN'17, ASN, RN
"GrnTea: YES!!!! I have worked at the Dental School going on 12 years now and I LOOOOVE the creativity each year. I will also be decorating mine. Very tasteful... no names... not gaudy. Our school is all black from head to toe so it is nice to be able to stand out a bit.

I do agree though, that some can be very inappropriate."
"Our school is all black from head to toe" = the graduation caps and gowns are all black...

13. May 11, '15 by guestng82
"At all three of my schools (HS, junior college and university), if you tried to do anything like this, you got pulled out of the line and could not walk. Even our shoes and the clothes we wore under the gowns had to be specific colors or you could not walk."
"or you could not walk" = participate in the graduation ceremony (walk across the stage to receive your diploma)

14. May 11, '15 by xoemmylouox, LPN, RN
"I don't see anything wrong with it as long as it isn't too tacky. I have seen plenty of nice ones that have allowed us to distinguish that person from the rest. I think graduation is a time of celebration and fun. Some schools do not allow it. To each their own."

15. May 11, '15 by ElvishDNP, BSN, DNP, RN, NP
"When I got my BSN in 2001, lots of people decorated their mortarboards for the big ceremony where ALL the graduates from all disciplines (bachelors, masters, doctorate) filed into one portion of the stadium and family/friends sat in the rest. It's a big stadium, holds over 60k people. People wanted their loved ones to be able to see them. I carried a Mexican flag with me so my Mexican boyfriend (who is now my Mexican husband) would see me. My Canadian roommate had a big red maple leaf on her mortarboard.

I guess I'm one of those perpetual kids that doesn't really have a problem with people celebrating a graduation they've (hopefully) worked hard for."


16. May 13, '15 by katie115, ADN, RN
"Wow, what is with some of your replies? I'm not going to decorate anything on my mortar board, but if it's not a big deal, why are we complaining? Who cares!

If you're hyper-focused on someone's mortar board, I think you need to re-focus into something that actually matters."

17. May 18, '15 by heartnursing, BSN
"WOW I cant even believe what I am reading..people actually do this?? and wear boas? They sure know how to make a graduation ceremony a joke. Keep it traditional and stop making yourselves look like a joke because really that is what it looks like, not to mention how unprofessional. Just because you can does not mean you should."

18. May 19, '15 by Whispera, CNS Pro
"When did this trend start? When my husband graduated from Notre Dame in 1972, many decorated their mortar boards. I remember one that said "hi Mom!". Everyone also threw their caps in the air at the end of the ceremony. The ceremony as well as the marching-in were quite dignified. The play with the caps was a joyful celebration. I loved it."

19. May 20, '15 by TrishRNNew2NH
I graduated in '99 from a NY community college. Let me tell you we had it all . I had a pinning ceremony the florence nightengale lamp and candle ceremony which was separate from graduation . Even honors and every graduating nurse had RN on their mortar board in our graduation ceremony. The Nursing professors wanted us to stand out among the over 2000 graduates. In Their words why shouldn't we "you are the best of the best. I also had a pi theta kappa sash and we were all sporting our pins quite proudly. Most of whom I had the pleasure of graduating with finished with high honours and most of the awards were presented to Nursing students . We worked our collective bums off. We were awesome and should stand out. In my humble opinion lol"

20. May 20, '15 by turtlesRcool
"Definitely not a new thing. I graduated in 98, and there were definitely lots of people decorating their mortar boards then.

I've never decorated mine, but that's because I'm not particularly crafty. I always enjoy looking at them, though."

Excerpt #2:
From Power, pride, and kente cloth
by Denise Oliver Velez; Sunday June 05, 2016 · 9:00 AM EDT

"Lollypop Black Hat June 05 · 07:22:54 PM
As a long-time teacher, I have attended dozens (maybe 50) of graduations. In the 70s the hippie decorations got so out of hand that schools I was in all went back to the traditional garb issued by the school—NO INDIVIDUAL CHOICES-- became the standard. After the ceremony the kids could put on stoles, ribbons, flowers, whatever they wanted for their photos. It’s a ceremony. There are traditions and standards that apply to all."

With the exception of these embedded DIY (do it yourself) tutorial videos, the scenes of Black graduates wearing decorated graduation caps are scattered throughout those embedded videos.

Example #1: Black Graduate Celebration

Embedding isn't permitted for this video. Click

University of Nevada, Reno, Published on Jul 1, 2013

The sights, sounds and purpose of the 4th Annual Black Graduate Celebration hosted by the by The Center for Student Cultural Diversity at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Click 1:02 for an example of a decorated graduation cap.

Example #2: "Don't Touch My Crown" Graduation Cap DIY

Altavia Lowery, Published on Dec 13, 2016

Hey Yall !!! I am so excited to be graduating from college this upcoming Friday, December 16th, 2016!!! This video is a graduation cap decoration D.I.Y. It was inspired by A Seat at the Table by Solange, “Don’t Touch My Hair (ft. Sampha). I hope you all enjoy. Be on the lookout Friday for my Graduation Vlog!!!!

Example #3: HOW TO| Decorating My College Graduation Cap| (2016)

Kadreanna Shakay, Published on Dec 20, 2016

Black Girl Magic! This video gives you ideas for your graduation cap! If anyone recreate, let me know my Instagram @kadreannascofield !! Tag me🎓❤️. I FINALLY MADE IT. Arkansas State Alumna🎓❤️

Example #4: VUU Graduation SPR 16

Irving LCpl Malcolm J, Published on Jul 6, 2016

Alpha Phi Alpha 3rd House Step
"VUU" = Virginia Union University is located in Richmond, Virginia.

Examples of decorated graduation caps are shown from the beginning of this video.

Example #5: Howard 2017

Nigel Wilkie, Published on May 16, 2017

Howard University - School of C Graduation

"Swag Surfin' (Explicit)" by F.L.Y. (Fast Life Yungstaz)
Examples of decorated graduation caps are shown from the beginning of this video on.

Example #6: My LIT graduation! Class of 2017!

Tevin AllenVlogz, Published on May 25, 2017

Enjoy my experience of finishing my undergrad! Officially a alumni at CSULB! Black Graduation 17'

Click 5:07 and 8:35 for some examples in this video of decorated graduation caps.


Ms. Kyari, Published on Jun 25, 2017
Click from 1:00 to around 3:32 for some examples in this video of decorated graduation caps.

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Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Here's another anecdotal memory about students in the United States graduating from universities who decorated their graduating caps: In 1991 my daughter (African American) graduated from Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pennsylvania (near Erie). Edinboro is a PWI (predominately White Institution). Although I attended that graduation, I couldn't recall whether students decorated their graduation caps.

    I asked my daughter and she said that she didn't decorate her cap but some graduates (White and Black) did. She chose not to "walk" in her graduation ceremony when she later received her masters from the University of Pittsburgh. Thus she has no information about whether any of those graduates wore decorated caps. My daughter also shared that no one decorated their caps the year she graduated from high school.

    I graduated college [Upsala College, East Orange, New Jersey] in in 1969, but I chose not to "walk" in the graduation ceremony. I therefore don't know if anyone decorated their graduation cap, but I doubt if anyone did. No one decorated their graduation cap when I graduated from high school in 1965.

    1. I remember gifting my daughter with a purple and gold kente cloth stole that she wore for her graduation. Those colors represented her membership in the [unofficial] little sisters/auxiliary group of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.

      I recall thinking that her wearing that stole might be perceived as being kinda "revolutionary", and I wasn't sure if her university actually permitted it. However, she was proud to wear it and we recall that a few other Black students wore a kente cloth stole.

      As my daughter and I both recall the Black students who wore a kente cloth stole were all affiliated with a historically Black Greek letter organization (either as a member of a historically Black fraternity or sorority, or-more often as a member of a little sister organization to a historically Black Greek letter fraternity. Our recollection is that those kente cloth stoles were the colors of those BGLOs (and their little sister groups) and not the now ubiquitous Pan-African colors of red, green, and gold with the addition of the color black.