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-
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.