A spirited poem decrying racial injustice and conservative politics read before hundreds at Sonoma State University’s weekend graduation ceremony drew sharp criticism from some parents over its tone and coarse language while prompting an email apology from President Judy Sakaki.
Graduating senior Dee Dee Simpson recited her poem from memory Saturday night on stage at Weill Hall in the Green Music Center, where a record-setting 2,651 students received diplomas during the two-day commencement.
In the poem, Simpson, who is African-American, railed against police violence that has claimed black lives and made disparaging references to President Donald Trump and Fox News. The several minutes of verse contained a number of expletives.
Cara Freedman was outraged. The San Diego parent, who sat on the lawn waiting for her daughter, Alexa Grossman, to graduate, said she looked around to see people shaking their heads after Simpson “dropped the F-bomb.”
“We were shocked,” Freedman said Tuesday in an interview. “I’m still a little bit shocked. What kind of school is this? Who in the world would allow this to take place?”
Freedman and her ex-husband, Marc Grossman, also of San Diego, each fired off angry emails to Sakaki, who listened to Simpson’s poem from a few feet away. University officials said the two parents’ complaints were among four or five received to date.
“How could you allow anyone to give a hate speech like that?” Grossman wrote. “You should be ashamed of yourself. There were kids in the audience.”
Sakaki did not respond Wednesday to a either a request for comment through the school’s interim communications director or a message left on her cellphone. She was in Long Beach at the California State University Board of Trustees meeting where she received the California State Student Association President of the Year award.
However, Sakaki, who is completing her first year as president, apologized in an email to Grossman, saying she regretted the reading of Simpson’s poem. She blamed a new graduation format of six separate ceremonies for insufficient oversight of program content.
“While a university should include and allow for all kinds of voices and perspectives, and while this individual student is among our accomplished poets, having her offer this particular piece at the Arts and Humanities commencement was a mistake,” Sakaki said. “It simply should not have happened.”
Simpson, who graduated over the weekend with a degree in English education, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
In her poem, she talked about black mothers instructing their children how to behave before police so they “come home at night.” She also seemed to chastise people upset by the Trump administration, saying black people have been suffering government abuses for decades.
“My people live in places you wouldn’t drive through in an armored truck,” Simpson told the crowd.
Kim Baptista, past managing editor of the campus newspaper who sat in the audience waiting to receive her communications degree, said she sympathized with the message but the venue in which it was delivered was wrong.
“People were taken aback,” Baptista said. “Here it was supposed to be a celebratory time. And you’re up there wagging your finger at us.”
A copy of Simpson’s poem was not available. In years past, graduation videos have been posted on YouTube in about a week.