Though Deveonte Joseph’s graduation was cancelled because of the rapidly spreading respiratory virus, wearing the blue garb meant a lot more than simply acknowledging the milestone.
“People look at my people like we’re down, like we don’t have anything,” Joseph, 17, told CNN. “I just don’t think we’re respected enough.”
He wanted to show that people like him are reaching their goals; he wanted to “put positivity into the world.”
Joseph is the first of his 10-sibling family to graduate high school with a diploma.
“I was looking forward to graduating with a cap and gown,” he told Refinery29. “It’s been hard. I’ve fought through it, but I did it. I graduated. We graduates from 2020 are going through all this.”
“It’s not fair,” he continued, “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.”
The photo of Joseph standing in his cap and gown, the city under protest as the backdrop, touched hearts across social media. Photographer Nathan Aguirre snapped the photo not knowing Joseph’s name, at first.
“I think a lot of people, including myself, were in disbelief and in awe,” Aguirre told CNN. “The protests had died down slightly by this point. There were still large fires burning.”
He later found out a family member went to school with Joseph.
“When I put on the gown, I felt like I really accomplished something big,” Joseph told Refinery29.
Joseph wasn’t the only one celebrating his graduation by attending the protests.
He was joined by Rachel Garrison. Twitter user @rachelleolson shared a photo of her wearing a mask with her cap and gown, her fist in the air. The tweet reads that she was valedictorian of North Education Center.
Three other graduates — Datelle Straub, Avery Lewis and Titan Harness-Reed — wore their bright-red graduation outfits.
Holding his diploma in the air, Straub told photographer David Guttenfelder, “Because of COVID we couldn’t walk the stage, so we decided to put our robes on to show that there is Black excellence in our community.”
A graduate was also photographed and filmed at protests in Newark.
“We have to change the way they look at us,” the caption reads. “The work was never over.”