Harvard and Black History

Black history in America is intimately related to the history of Harvard. The national observance of Black History Month that we begin today was created by a Harvard graduate. After noticing the dearth of serious attempts to document black history, Carter G. Woodson ’12 began “Negro History Week” in 1926. In the 1970s, that week blossomed into Black History Month. Woodson was a history concentrator and he was only the second African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, 276 years after the school’s founding.

The month Woodson chose for this celebration, February, is fitting because it contains the birthdays of many pioneering African Americans and anniversaries of the founding of many black institutions. Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Class of 1890 (the first African American to gain a doctorate from Harvard), Langston Hughes and Eubie Blake were born this month; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the first Pan-African Congress were also founded in February.

Why do we celebrate Black History? The month offers a time to combat the myth that black people are not a part of and have not contributed to human civilization. The purpose is to see beyond suppression and revision of the historical record. Yet, the fullest appreciation of Black History Month requires the recognition that more than a month is necessary to celebrate and accurately portray the contributions of blacks to our culture.

Has Harvard come to recognize such contributions fully? While we do have an Afro-American studies department, there is still room for improvement.

Take for example Harvard’s course offerings. Only one undergraduate course in the music department focuses on music created by people of African descent, even though much of the world’s music has been created by this population, including jazz, spirituals, blues, gospel, rap, country, rock-n-roll, meringue, folk, samba, reggae, ragtime and calypso. The de-colonization movements in Africa, the abolitionist movements of the 19th century and the recent Civil Rights and Black Power movements in America have been powerful incubators for black philosophers, yet the philosophy department has not deemed any of these thinkers substantive enough to contribute to discussions of evil, justice, ethics, politics, or morals.

In addition, the classics department sustains no inquiry into the Egyptian and Ethiopian influences on the ancient world, though these influences were repeatedly recognized by authors such as Herodotus and Thucydides. In the Foreign Cultures section of the Core, over ten courses deal with Europe, while there are none on Africa. Of course, this critique can be extended to several other departments. (The history department deserves some commendation for its inclusion of a small section on African history.) Black History Month serves as a reminder that for Harvard to continue to claim the title of being one of the world’s greatest academic institutions, it must not uncaringly ignore a large portion of the world’s people in its course offerings. It is a reminder that token gestures are not sufficient.

Despite the positive steps that Harvard has taken in embracing blacks, Harvard attitudes about blacks have and still do raise serious questions. Harvard’s “position” on diversity has not erased the school’s track record as a source of white-supremacist scholarship throughout the centuries and down to the present day. Many of us have been to Agassiz Theater without knowing that Louis Agassiz was a professor of zoology who asserted that the education of blacks should be based on their latent inferiority, meaning that they should be trained solely in manual labor. In an influential psychology textbook published in 1908, former Harvard social psychologist William McDougall discusses a “submission instinct” in black people, an innate need to be pushed around and exploited by others. Harvard anthropologist Ernest Hooten called for race-based compulsory sterilization and biological purges in 1937. And as recently as last year in Social Analysis 10: Principles of Economics, the assigned article “Higher Alcohol Prices May Lower Spousal Abuse” by David Francis nonchalantly stated, “Stress, family history of violence, and being black are all associated with an increased probability of wife abuse.” This racist statement was given no proof and the professor never commented on it. The purpose of Black History Month is to put forth an enlightened perspective that contradicts such misguided judgments and combats this biased scholarship. Its goal is to show that a fuller appreciation and understanding of human life can be gained from seriously analyzing the African diaspora.

As we celebrate Black History Month, let us remember that it is not only a time to venerate the towering figures of black achievement, but also a loud call to action. It urges all of us to continue the struggle for equality and freedom from oppression. This is a month filled with the hope that one day the world—Harvard included—will truly learn the intimate connection between the word multicultural and the much more familiar one veritas.

Marques J. Redd ’04 is a social studies and Afro-American studies concentrator in Adams House. He is vice-president of the Black Students Association.

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