Jah’Queena Allen, who graduated from Schenectady High School last month, doesn’t know for sure if her lineage connects directly to slavery, but she knows there’s a chance.
And she knows a long line of strong women overcame racism, discrimination and all manner of obstacles so she could graduate and go off to college. So Allen decided to pay homage to those women with a graduation cap designed to highlight that line of women: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams …”
“I know a lot of my family members who haven’t finished high school or gone to college,” Allen said last week. “This is not just for me.”
The graduation cap, created by Allen’s friend, showed a progression of black women through time: a pair of slaves on the far left of the cap, followed by a woman dressed as a maid; a protester holding a fist up high followed by a student finally welcomed to school. A mother in a dress and crown, symbolizing the near-royal status women hold in Allen’s life.
“It’s a tribute to all the females in my life,” she said. “I think the female influence is what pushed me; that’s all I had growing up my sister and mom. Me graduating was for all of us, I did this for all of us.
Each figure represented a step through the generations, finishing with a smiling girl, clad in black robes, clasping a diploma in hand and smiling back at the women who proceeded her.
“Wow!! Just wow!!” Shastidy Ponce, a youth empowerment specialist at the high school, wrote as she tweeted out a picture of Allen’s cap.
When Allen graduated, she was joined at Proctors by her mother, older brothers and great-grandma. She said her mom, who went to Mont Pleasant when it was one of the city’s two high schools, dropped out but later earned a GED. Allen listed other family members who dropped out, earned high school equivalency diplomas or never made it to college.
But she always knew she planned to graduate from high school and go off to college. Allen said she has long been a strong student, inherently motivated and interested to get up each morning and go to school.
“It was one thing that always made me happy,” she said of school.
She applied to 10 colleges and scored a near-perfect acceptance rate, missing out on just one school.
“I got accepted to every single one but one,” she said. “Only Cortland said no; that kind of stung.”
In the fall, Allen will be taking her interest in school to Hartwick College in Oneonta, where she plans to study psychology and child development. She said she is interested in pursuing graduate studies and possibly working as a psychologist or elementary school teacher.
Showing off her cap, Allen said she was curious whether her family has a direct lineage to enslaved people but that she hadn’t found an answer yet. Regardless, the historical progression showcased on her cap represents incremental progress in American society, she said.
“It shows improvement, and it shows things can get better,” Allen said, reflecting back on times when blacks were kept out of schools all together.
She showed off the cap to her great-grandma before graduation.
“I showed it to her and she pointed to where she would’ve been,” Allen said, pointing to the woman dressed as a maid. “At certain times, they weren’t able to do schooling.”
Allen, who has 14 siblings and half-sbilings, plans to spend the summer working and getting ready for school, but she also hopes the sight of her walking across that Proctors stage last month can serve as a reminder of the success for her siblings and others. When asked what she dreams of for her own future descendants, she said she “dreams of carrying on the legacies and cultures of my ancestors.”
“It’s something they can be proud of — for all of us,” she said of her diploma.