Harvard '72 is a label I have carried now for more than 25 years. I've been asked to tell what the Harvard '72 experience was like. What was it like "then"?
Well, my Harvard '72 story is that of a gay American-born son of Jamaican immigrants who spent his time at Harvard solidifying a "self" and beginning to learn some of life's immutable, simple and difficult lessons. I knew then that I wanted to be a lawyer and get involved in politics.
I was a history and literature concentrator and I spent much of my sophomore and junior years competing academically with my friend and muse Susan McHenry '72 from Louisville, Ky. I had your much-better-than-average Harvard room-mates: Doug Harris, Clarence Smith and Greg Johnson.
I liked Greg Johnson so much that I decided to spend the rest of my life with him. I have done just that. We came to know each other's character when we worked together at the Columbia Point housing project in Dorchester. We did this work through Phillips Brooks House. We worked very hard to raise money from Boston foundations and planning daily educational and recreational activities for "our kids."
Through the close personal interaction with these children, their siblings and their parents, we came to know some universal truths such as: All parents want their children to have a good future and a quality education; all people have dignity and desire respect. The Columbia Point experience was truly a fundamental part of my Harvard education. A year-round program, we lived in the projects each summer for three years. From this experience I learned much that I still rely upon today.
Ours was a period of great unrest. The Vietnam War was raging and students actively protested against it. We privileged, draft-exempt university students were about to be subject to conscription through a lottery system based on one's date of birth. Many campuses experienced skirmishes between students, the administration and police. Harvard, Columbia, Cornell and Kent State were prominent among them.
The University Hall bust of 1969 has achieved legendary status. Race and the presence of the first significant number of American blacks on Harvard's campus was a riddle for all involved. Some of Harvard's most respected professors had unequivocally declared that African-American Studies could not be countenanced as real Harvard department--period. African-American students wondered why Harvard wasn't black enough, seemingly forgetting that Harvard had no appreciable track record in diversity.
Many black students grew to uniquely understand what DuBois meant when he wrote that African-American experience two unreconciled stirrings: being black and being an American. Many of the U.S. casualties of the Vietnam War were black boys from poor neighborhoods.
Thus being black and a young man at Harvard in 1972 was rendered extremely complex. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) stopped by to recruit a few good revolutionary Black Power warriors. Black Students Association (BSA) meetings were long and often heated. Big "Afro" hair was important and white involvements were often privately and publicly scrutinized. In black communities across the country, Harvard was rumored to have "ruined" many black men. It was said that these promising students had been con- fused about their racial and class identity and were therefore rendered useless to the struggle for black liberation. I do not recall if this was also said about black women students.
We black students organized a Journal of Afro-American and African Studies, founded the Kuumba Singers, lobbied for and opened an Afro-American Cultural Center on Sacramento Street and vigorously lobbied for a serious Afro-American studies department and for more black and female professors.
It was the proverbial best and worst of times. The best included the freedom that being a Harvard undergraduate offered--reasonable housing, relatively accessible professors and tutors, all within close range of greater Boston and its attractions. Harvard Square transformed its staid self into a virtual carnival of hippies, druggies, politicos, panhandlers and townies curious to watch it all.
The class of '72 witnessed the change of command from President Nathan Pusey to President Derek Bok. We experienced Harvard and Radcliffe have a "non-merger." Mather House opened on the river. American society actually experienced a sea change while we were undergraduates. Music exploded from Motown to the Beatles and Laura Nyro to Sly.
Recreational pot, hashish, uppers, downers and hallucinogens were part of campus reality. Not everyone drugged but most drank something and cigarette smoking was an acceptable social activity. Adult-like sex was now quite available as well and there was much discussion about "free love," communal living, black separatist states and even revisiting the "back to Africa" vision of Paul Cuffe and Marcus Mosiah Garvey. I seemed to focus on being sure that I was making my own and not peer-pressured decisions about who I wanted to be.
I sensed most of the freedom to be myself and to try to take smart steps toward adulthood. I knew that I was black and gay. I found that true love might not fit the racial ideology of the dining-hall groupings. I spent far too much time trying to figure out how to exempt the good white people while trying to assure the eternal damnation of the bad white people. I went from the Harvard Glee Club, Christ Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Chaplaincy to the Kuumba Singers, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and then thought that I should have applied to Morehouse College--where none of my time would have been spent teaching Harvard to understand the African-American experience.
The gay man emerged within a wonderful circle of gay black Harvard friends--lifemates, really, who all began to bloom fully at the same time. We had a wonderful time. We developed a double-speak language for the dining hall and spent lots of summer, term-time and semester breaks exploring New York City and San Francisco. If the walls of Mather could speak, they would tell of overflow gay male parties where black gay men made new history at Harvard.
We were a highly literate and sophisticated bunch just waiting to graduate to Europe, where none of us had been--but thinking of James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Josephine Baker and Bricktop, we knew we had to have a Paris sequence in our lives. AIDS was not here yet so the possibilities seemed endless.
Much more than sandwiched in between was the Harvard classroom education. What courses do you take if you think you might be a presidential candidate after European, African and law school experiences? Which openings in the course catalog were "relevant" to my future? History and literature was the perfect major. Its interdisciplinary approach encouraged exploration of common themes and original scholarship. It was in Donald Fleming's American intellectual history course that I really first understood that factual conclusions have a lot to do with who is determining the facts and reaching the conclusions. My tutors, Barry O'Connell and Gail Parker, directed my intellectual growth with the right amounts of demand and reassurance.
I also had the great pleasure of having dinner almost nightly for a semester with Professor Ewart Guinier. He was the first chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard. He was an imposing figure, as handsome as he was intelligent. A lawyer and a political activist, he told me stories of the Harlem Renaissance, post-Depression governmental policies and why Harvard could not be trusted. Before the end of his term as chair, he would distribute a booklet he edited entitled "Unfair Harvard," wherein he chronicled the sorry saga of minimal commitment to African-American studies. Harvard's administration should award him with a posthumous medal for his bravery and valor in battle--and then take a seminar on why he would never have elected to receive such a tainted honor.
My clearest recollections of the class of '72 are of being one of the group of students who seized Massachusetts Hall--President Derek Bok's office--for more than a week. We demanded that Harvard divest its shares in Gulf Oil, which was then underwriting oppressive regimes in Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Angola.
It was the largest and most effective campus demonstration ever. During the demonstration, the Yard was fully circled with thousands of sympathetic supporters who came to protest and to protect us against the possibility of a '69-type bust. There was no bust and Harvard did not divest. We did, however, focus the attention of the nation on an important human-rights issues. At the '72 Commencement we carried black crosses to symbolize our struggle.
Now, 25 years later, I have just cosponsored an order before the Cambridge City Council requesting the city to decline any investment related to Shell Oil, which today underwrites the oppressive regime of Gen. Sani Abacha in Nigeria, where the democratically elected President Moshood K. Abiola has been imprisoned and his wife Kudirat murdered. Their daughter (Hafsat O. Abiola '96-'97) has asked that we join her in a human-rights campaign. I am prepared to do so.
--Kenneth E. Reeves '72 was mayor of Cambridge from 1992 to 1995 and has served on the City Council since 1990.Crimson file photoCity Councillor KENNETH E. REEVES '72