"It is a good thing that the body of students should now and then be stirred to the very depths of their souls." --Francis A. Walker, on the Harvard football program, 1893
"I don't own no piece of the rock." --Al Green, on the Afro-American experience, popular song, 1975
Last week for the first time a Harvard newspaper told of the denial of tenure to the eminently qualified associate professor of Afro-American Studies, Ephraim Isaac. The day after this article appeared, the Crimson devoted its entire editorial page to a piece on the Harvard-Yale Game. Not that the two stories are meant to carry equal weight in the minds of readers; "The Game" merits at least a full page in all the Harvard newspapers every year.
A cynical Crimson writer noted with tongue in cheek last year that unless partisan onlookers with less at stake can scarcely refuse to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to insure the survival and success of Harvard's football team." Seth Kupferberg, the author, may have been speaking ironically, but unfortunately there are numerous administrators, alumnae, and miscellaneously-allied Harvardians who feel sincerely ready to pay any price. The Yale game is a big event, to say the least, in terms of effort, commitment, and perhaps most importantly, money. While the Du Bois Institute barely stands on its feet after years of bureaucratic hassling and the Afro-American Studies Department struggles along with at most two tenured professors; while minority admissions drop steadily in spite of the efforts of a handful of ever-dedicated Third World students and diminished commitment from the administration allows fewer students from poor socio-economic conditions admittance; mountains of time and concern are heaped upon an affair with as much relevance to the plight of Black people as what color tie Derek Bok wore yesterday.
Yet the Game is important, it increases Harvard's coffers, and the administration is obviously involved in its success. The students who take the train ride down to Connecticut participate in a century-old tradition, becoming immersed in the "spirit of Harvard." It would seem impossible not to feel a sense of belonging when involved in such a spectacle. The institution intentionally fosters that community sense, for these are future donors to the legendary immense Harvard fortune; such important assets must be nurtured. Fostering the sense of belonging, that feeling of having found one's niche, is the best assurance of student concern, and the surest way to make that concern appear reciprocal.
Black students are thus obviously left in a precarious situation. Having little in the way of tangible assets to bring to Harvard in the first place other than its members themselves, the Black student body at Harvard is treated as an expendable commodity. Yet hundreds of Black men and women continue to apply. While Harvard shelters the likes of Kilson and Quine, Black scholars diligently work in the stacks of Widener. Why?
Part of the answer is related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's $30,000 October shopping spree. In one afternoon Mrs. Onassis spent more than most of the families of Black students here earn in an entire year. If any college can possibly equip a young woman with the skills necessary to earn as much as Jackie Onassis's clothing bill, this is the place. Or so the story goes. Even the illusion of a promise keeps the applications coming in.
The other part of the answer has to do with the philosophical/political beliefs of a man denied admissions to Harvard because of his blackness: Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, who became the foremost defender of Black academia at the turn of this century. Dr. DuBois contended that for the most intellectually talented Black youth, no obstacles should be permitted to arise in the pursuit of educational fulfillment. And decades later, after thousands of lynchings, sit-ins, marches, and prayer meetings, it is no less true that knowledge is most powerful tool in the hands of an oppressed people: "knowledge of the self, as well as knowledge of the enemy." What better place to gain that knowledge of the men who run America than in the pseudo-liberal halls of Harvard?
So black students continue to attend Harvard-Radcliffe in scores. Some grapple with the institution head on in an attempt to carve out an identity, sitting at Black tables in the dinning halls, participating in Big Brother programs with disadvantaged Boston youngsters, feeling perhaps an inordinate amount of pride and relief when Freddie Hubbard and James Baldwin come to Harvard and relate superbly both as artists and Black men. Others feel no compulsion to address the question of race at all, moving through the maze of intense Harvard experiences, positive and negative, as independent entities. Either attitude has its advantages, but both strain under one unavoidable fact: Harvard doesn't especially give a damn.