At Last, a Presence

Arielle A. Fridson

Early in his freshman year, Derrick N. Ashong ’97-’98 was warmly welcomed to Harvard Yard—by a coterie of cops. When they saw Ashong try to get into their dorm late at night, a group of fellow students called the Harvard University Police. Young, black, and clueless, Ashong explained to the officers that he just wanted to get home.

Six years later, sulking on the steps of Holworthy in late February after a disappointing first semester, Isaac Weiler ’02-’03 plugged in his headphones and turned on Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts.” Harvard was too suffocating, too pretentious for the half-black, half-Jewish boy from a segregated New Jersey town. He seriously considered dropping out of school.

Harvard was also nothing like Brandon R. Terry ’04’s inner-city Baltimore community. Having applied to Harvard on a dare, Terry found himself regretting his decision just one month into his freshman year. Terry began to fill out a transfer application to the University of Maryland.

Meanwhile, black men in America were falling behind their peers at an alarming rate. Newspapers reported that fewer African American males attend and graduate college than young people in almost every other ethnic group.

Attending Harvard certainly bucked that trend, but the statistics had followed Ashong, Weiler, and Terry into Harvard Yard, where they felt desperately out of place.

Standing alone in the shadows and sulking, however, struck all three as the worst possible option. Instead, over the span of 11 years, Ashong, Weiler, and Terry each decided to take action. If Harvard had no place for them, fine. They’d stamp out their own.

In 1994, Ashong fleshed out the beginnings of what Weiler and Terry would eventually establish as one of the most commanding communities on campus: the Black Men’s Forum (BMF).

Every other Monday, the organization puts ties on 30 black men, giving respectability a visible black face. Every spring, members mobilize young men on campus to stand out against rape. This weekend, the BMF will launch a summit on the international AIDS epidemic with a panel discussion to which they’ve invited students from over 40 other schools. In the last year, the BMF has co-sponsored events with 20 other campus organizations and has become a strong voice in UC politics.

These days, black men aren’t sitting on the steps of their freshman dorm listening to “Suicidal Thoughts” and contemplating dropping out. They’re running for UC president, lobbying administrators, commanding Harvard’s attention. They’ve taken charge.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Ashong was the first of them all. A captivating orator who could hypnotize his audience with unceasing hand motions and a spark in his eye, Ashong was all over the campus, in the Black Students’ Association (BSA), Kuumba, the Haitian Alliance, and occasionally at Asian American Association meetings—when they had ice cream.

But the suspicious glances classmates cast his way made him realize how different his experience was from that of his black female peers.

He was able to find sympathetic friends in 29 Garden Street. With the Union dorms under construction, the University had thrust some freshmen into temporary housing in the building across the street from the Registrar’s office. “29-G,” they called it. A group of black men who lived there came to be called the G-men. Ashong found himself often venturing out to 29-G, where he felt more at home.

In 1997, black men at Harvard were in an uncomfortable situation. With their class, black enrollment had nearly doubled—from around 80 students in 1996 to 150 the next year. Black males in particular were more strongly represented than ever. Whereas the class before them had been only one-third male, their class was evenly split between the genders. But without an established community of black males, the G-men and their newly populous peer group could turn to no one but each other.

When it would have been most needed, BMF was non-existent. Although Ashong had seen the name Black Men’s Forum in a Harvard brochure when he first applied to college, he found that the organization existed only in the Registrar’s student group listings. There were no meetings, no events, and no one knew anything about it. Well, Ashong decided, they were going to bring it back.

It wasn’t anything serious when Ashong first rounded up the guys. Like any other roomful of young men who were close friends, they talked about anything and everything that crossed their minds. “We talked about guy stuff, stuff that we saw, stuff that affected us,” Michael C. Sleet ‘97, Ashong’s Harvard roommate and 3rd president of the BMF, remembers. The first meeting was a lot of fun, so they decided to have another, and the Black Men’s Forum was born.

The first official meeting, which took place on the third floor of Emerson, was held with little concrete vision for the organization. “Popular? Not at all, there was no BMF,” says Bashir Salahuddin ’98, the group’s second president. “We had zero clout on campus, but that also meant there was no one telling us what to do.”

Ashong and the group that formed the first board of BMF went to S. Allen Counter, head of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, and told him that they wanted to revive the BMF. He cheered them on, saying it was a wonderful idea; but it was up to them to figure out how.

“WHAT IS BEAUTIFUL”

While the BMF was still struggling to find its footing, the umbrella organization under which it fell, the BSA, was already well-established and powerful. “We had no desire to compete with the BSA,” Salahuddin says, citing the BSA’s 200-person monthly general assemblies.

Its fairer-sex counterpart, Association of Black Radcliffe Women (ABRW)—which became Association of Black Harvard Women after Harvard and Radcliffe merged—also had a firm idea of what it was about. When Ashong and Sleet came across some ABRW posters advertising a discussion on “What is Beautiful,” they laughed and jokingly decided they would go to the discussion.

“What is beautiful? We’ll go and show’em!” Ashong remembers thinking. Instead of garnering appreciation for their looks, the two black men were stunned by grave discussions about racial dynamics and sexual valorization.

The women’s complaints gave the BMF a concrete issue they could tackle. If black men did not respect black women, how could they demand respect for themselves? It was this idea that inspired the first Celebration of Black Women.

“It was a symbolic move,” Ashong says. “We’re starting a Black Men’s Forum and the biggest thing we’ll be doing all year is to give props to black women in society.” The Celebration kick-started BMF, giving the still-developing group a name, a voice, and a form.

The BMF had to conjure the event up from nothing. Members ran around to get sponsorship from Square businesses and barged into the Cambridge mayor’s office to ask for support for the event. Without a DJ, members stayed up all night copying music onto tapes for the formal. A combination of luck, connections, and crazy ambition brought the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks to the event—ultimately a far greater success than anyone had imagined.

The two-day Celebration, which consisted of a talent showcase and a talk by Brooks, ended with the first ever black semi-formal in Adams Dining Hall. As the men of BMF handed each lady at the formal a rose, they knew they had won their respect.

Although attendance and scale was to fluctuate in the following years, the Celebration became the BMF’s signature event.

After attending the Celebration of Black Women his freshman year, Jason Young ’03 walked out jittery, with grand ideas about what the Celebration could become. Chairing the event for the next three years, Young pulled in sponsorships from big names like Goldman Sachs, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, and Black Entertainment Television.

With these cushy donations, Young took the event off campus for the first time, boosting it from a minimally attended talent show to a large-scale banquet with over 200 guests. Young’s transformation of the event put BMF smack in the spotlight on the Harvard campus and beyond.

“When he did what he did, I was like, ‘Oh My God, this represents what I wanted it to be, but you’ve done it to a whole other level than what we’d had,” Ashong says.

The event continues to grow. This month, the BMF doled out nearly 40 grand to honor California Congresswoman Maxine Waters at the 11th annual Celebration of Black Women in front of a crowd of over 400.

PUSHING IT INTO EXISTENCE

The weekend of the first Celebration, Sleet slept a total of five hours. Ashong entirely missed his Lit-C midterm while putting together the program the night before the performance. He was able to make up the test later, but the trauma of having entirely missed the original exam did not leave him. And all for an organization that wasn’t even fully in existence.

With neither tradition nor reputation to stand on, BMF was fueled solely by this devotion and belief of the membership. Keith Bernard ’99 remembers that, without the option of mass e-mail, the group went out to Boston University and Boston College on the T to advertise their events by standing out in the cold and handing out handbills.

“You believed that it mattered and you were with others that believed,” says Bernard, who became president of BMF his senior year. Had it not been for this devotion, the organization could easily have dissipated, as it once had.

Through their devotion, the BMF became a brotherhood. “BMF’s got to be a family, it’s got to be fun,” Ashong says. “Where you can go out [to] without worrying about folks clutching their purse when you walk by, because that happens in Harvard Square, [although] people don’t know that. I can go to BMF and know that that’s a place you won’t feel that.”

Because the organization had to be built from scratch, the founding members and subsequent leaders had the opportunity to shape the direction of the BMF. Often, this direction came from the personalities of the leaders themselves. “We were all very big personalities, very out spoken. We were viewed not as BMF, but…as Derrick and his group, Bashir and his group,” says Salahuddin.

The leaders capitalized on their personal connections and infectious personalities. “When we started, it was about convincing people to do something that no one’s doing. Part of that happening was that some of us were mad crazy and had big mouths, being like ‘Yo, BMF is hot, kid!’ even when it wasn’t that hot,” Ashong says.

In his tenure, Ashong channeled his energy in part into reshaping the image of black men at Harvard, instituting bi-weekly Tie Days. Every other Monday, BMF members would take the basketball-jersey, shaggy-pants image and dress it up with a nice dress shirt and a tie.

“It could’ve been Dashiki day, but the idea was this is the society we’re living in, this is how business is done here. A tie and a suit are examples of seriousness and respectability; we’re going to put a black face on that,” Ashong says.

Taking over as president in 1998, Bernard decided he to build on these traditions and solidify the organization’s brotherhood. He pushed BMF toward the direction of a fraternity, designing a coat of arms, slapping on a mission statement, coming up with a fraternal grip and a motto: “Brotherhood, Manhood and Fidelity.”

Bernard took those ideas seriously, so when he spotted the morose freshman Weiler on the steps of Holworthy, he didn’t hesitate before inviting him into BMF’s brotherhood.

Two days later, Weiler attended his first meeting. He never missed another, moving on to hold six of the seven board positions in the BMF, including the presidency his junior year. “Personally, I hate Harvard,” Weiler says. “It was too stuffy, too pretentious, too conservative. I have no Harvard clothing, have never given to the Harvard College Fund, and I don’t intend to. But I love BMF, and that’s what got me through.”

Salahuddin also sees BMF as a support group.

“For Black men, there’s nothing there to help you. You need someone to say, ‘Hey, idiot, this is what you’re supposed to do,’” Salahuddin says. “Somewhere you can bitch about the stuff that’s bothering you.”

Different members had different ideas about what the organization should be. But every single one found BMF a place where he could be comfortable, grow as a person, an African-American male, and a leader.

“Look at someone like Brandon Terry: came in freshman year from Baltimore, completely different environment than most of the kids here, wasn’t really comfortable, found a voice and a home in BMF. Issac Weiler, out of New Jersey, half black, half Jewish, all crazy, and once again wasn’t fully comfortable here, found a home in BMF. Kwame [Owosu-Kesse ’06, BMF president in ’04-’05], as a freshman he was a little bit shy, basketball player but was kinda quiet at the same time, sweet kid, found a home in BMF,” Ashong says.

Though he never went to school with any of them, Ashong has still become brothers with these boys, all of whom still ring him up for advice—about the BMF and about life.

GAINING MOMENTUM

The morning of the scheduled Celebration of Black Women in March 2000, the BMF received an unnerving call. Their speaker and honoree phoned in to say that the bank she worked for had just merged with Fleet and things at work were going haywire. She would not be able to attend the BMF’s much-anticipated event that evening.

With no one to honor, the men cancelled the event and tossed out a few months worth of solid preparation. Striving to maintain the annual tradition, the BMF made up for the cancellation by having two Celebrations the next school year. That year, the BMF experienced more challenges as internal conflicts caused the executive board to change four times and three members were forced to resign from their positions.

In order to remedy these internal difficulties, the BMF focused on building their infrastructure. It existed, but the organization wasn’t yet a visible force in the College scene.

From 2000 to 2001, the older, more prominent BSA took the stage in protesting Professor Harvey C. Mansfield’s ’53 statements linking grade inflation at Harvard to the influx of Black students in the 1970s. BMF members participated, but the organization itself was not involved.

“When I graduated, the BMF was certainly a campus presence but it had no greater stature than other student groups such as the South East Asian Association,” former UC president Sam Cohen ’00 wrote in an e-mail. “It seemed that members of the BMF were also involved in the Black Students Association, [though] the BSA was probably the more prominent.”

Things started to look up the following year, when a Weiler-led board made meetings weekly rather than bi-weekly, increasing interaction among the members.

Around the same time Young helped make the Celebration a bigger event, Alonzo P. Sherman ’03 played the BMF up socially and rejuvenated it with a fresh burst of energy, engineering the first annual Paintball Challenge his junior year with other ethnic male organizations. That year was also the first time the BMF took its members to Montreal for The Caribbean Students Forum, an event that Sherman calls 70 percent social.

“You have an organization that is growing because it’s doing a better job of getting its membership involved,” says Sherman, who was BMF president his senior year. “We remembered what it was like to have fun together…for most if not all of my membership junior and senior year, we had 10 out of 5 of fun,” he adds, referring to Harvard’s disgraceful 2.62 out of 5 student satisfaction rating.

POLITICAL PROMISE

Though Salahuddin calls himself and the first group of BMF boys “extremely political,” their interests were never funneled into action through the BMF itself.

Focusing on internal strengthening and social outreach, the young BMF did not venture into politics, especially since the BSA was known for its activism.

“It was difficult for us to have a political agenda because the BSA had such a strong hold on it,” Salahuddin said of the first years of the BMF. “BSA is the political arm. [As for] BMF…some presidents wanted to run it like a fraternity.”

Slowly, the BMF’s narrowly defined reputation as just a brotherhood took on new dimensions. As the BMF became more established, others on campus started turning to it and its leaders for the black man’s opinion, Salahuddin says. These questions prodded the BMF into vocalizing more specific political views.

Former BMF Vice President Peter-Charles N. Bright ’01 led the organization in a joint effort with the BSA to protest the verdict of the shooting of Amadou Diallo, whom New York City police shot 11 times with no evidence of his guilt.

Around the same time, Weiler also started experimenting with the BMF e-mail list— originally used only for publicizing meetings—to spark political debate. After sending out a few news articles that piqued his interest, members gradually warmed to the idea, flooding the once-barren space with lively discussions.

Quickly, the e-mail list expanded from 30 people to include “everyone and their mama,” says Weiler. Filling inboxes with a message a minute when debates are sparked, the BMF e-mail list remains an integral part of the organization today.

Terry was one of those who would rush home from class and plant himself in front of the computer for hours during the days when a heated debate broke out over the list.

The boom of the e-mail forum gave Terry and other members a place to discuss their political concerns and solidify their political stances, but this was mostly an internal process within the BMF.

It wasn’t until Terry became president his junior year that the organization really took its political face to the rest of campus.

ACTING OUT

Coming to Harvard had been a cultural shock for Terry, an inner-city boy. He “stumbled in here,” spending many a lunch eating alone at the long tables of Annenberg. Walking in the Yard at night, Terry saw people run away from him without realizing he was the same person who sat behind them in math section.

“BMF saved my life,” Terry says, remembering how he felt alienated even from members of the black community—those who were accustomed to white suburban ways of thinking. Then he met the BMF brothers.

Most anyone who knows Terry has heard his story of alienation and discovery many times, and through repetition, it has become the core of Terry’s public persona. This vocal campus presence used his established self-image and his role in the BMF to galvanize the organization into concrete political actions.

After the curricular review proposals were revealed last spring, a group of BMF members read over the proposed changes cover to cover and collectively wrote a memo, which they printed and distributed to the faculty. In it, they criticized the lack of travel abroad opportunities to countries in Africa and Latin America and argued that Yale-style housing would destroy ethnic communities.

While the BMF had previously sponsored UC presidential debates that focused on black students’ concerns, its involvement in campus politics became even more proactive last fall. The BMF led the “Vote or Die” campaign, recruiting candidates to run for the UC and to increase the representation of diversity on campus. Spearheaded by Terry and Azhar N. Richmond ’05, the initiative contributed to the largest voter turnout the UC has ever seen. Vote or Die also provided financial and physical support for winning underdog candidates like Lori M. Adelmen ’08 and Amadi P. Anene ’08. Tracy Tyrone “Ty” Moore ’06, elected the next BMF president this week, made a bid for UC presidency with the strong support of the BMF and BSA, among other organizations.

As Harvard doubled its investment in PetroChina, a company accused of having ties to the dictatorship in Sudan, Terry and former UC president Matthew W. Mahan ’05 founded Senior Gift Plus to protest the University’s “lack of conscience.” Though Terry was no longer president of the BMF, having passed the role onto Kwame Owusu-Kesse ’06, the organization stood behind its former leader’s convictions. BMF joined with the other black organizations on campus and formed a strong black presence at the silent protests against the genocide in Darfur. BMF members were not only embracing their identity as black men but also as citizens who of the world.

“You can’t ignore the fact that black men do go to Harvard and that these black men who do go to Harvard care about other black people, and they are trying to do something to change the way our world works,” Terry says. “And once that fact can’t be ignored, that changes a whole lot of the conversation.”

THE TIES THAT BIND

Striding through Tercentenary Theatre between Monday classes, BMF members stand out among the crowd. Strapping on their ties in the morning, the BMF knows what they want people to think: respect, accomplishment.

Though BMF is targeted at a group defined by ethnicity and gender, they don’t seek to closet themselves. By choosing to wear ties, members express their desire to participate in society as it is set up today.

As much as BMF is “home base,” Marcus G. Miller ’08 says, the organization also encourages him to expand his social horizons beyond just black men and the black community. “BMF is a springboard and a place to start in navigation through Harvard,” Miller says.

Through its many contacts and resources, the BMF has become a hub that branches out into the community at large.

With the creation of the BMF’s quarterly “REMIX” magazine, Weiler showed how writing can help broadcast individuals’ thoughts beyond their immediate community. The internal publication inspired BMF members to pen Op Eds for The Crimson on a regular basis and motivated Terry to write his biweekly column, “On the Real,” this year.

The BMF is also one of the strongest co-sponsors of Take Back the Night, a week of events coordinated by the Office of Sexual Assault, Prevention, and Response (OSAPR). During the week’s meeting for males, BMF members comprised nearly 40 percent of those present. According to Daniel Meyer, an intern at OSAPR, BMF members were instrumental in rallying over 600 men on campus to sign pledge cards against sexual violence this spring.

The BMF has certainly embraced issues that are important in the greater community. Two Asian American freshmen have even joined its ranks. But with these additions and the organization’s efforts to address issues outside the black community, is the BMF at risk of losing its identity?

“It’s a testament to the BMF and the respect that we have in the community that we transcend racial boundaries,” says Owusu-Kesse. “[But] I was completely honest with them when they asked to join, that I’m not going shift my discussions or my agenda from being black-specific to being minority-specific…if you are dedicated to what we believe and the [plight of the] black people, then I welcome you.”

This attitude is why Terry calls the BMF “unapologetically black.”

BMF’S GOT YO JOLLIES

While other pre-frosh were off gallivanting with their red folders, last year, Miller and Michael P. Anderson ’08 hauled a few hundred chairs and tables out of Dunster dining hall. Invited to help set up for the BMF’s third annual “Get Yo Jollies” party that Saturday night, the pre-frosh began to understand why their hosts had spent all of the previous night raving about the BMF.

A menial task that most would dread quickly turned into a bonding opportunity as the BMF board members, clad in identical club T-shirts, bumped shoulders with the pre-frosh, swapping stories and laughs.

“Off the bat, we were doing something,” Anderson says. “Others schools were just stroking our back…With everyone setting up together, off the bat we were forming bonds.” That night, everyone seemed to get more than their fill of jollies; the BMF’s bash had over 600 in attendance.

As the festivities wound down, new relationships had already been established. Motivated by what they had seen, Anderson and Miller even met on their own over the summer to coordinate their ideas for service projects, which they brought to the organization this fall.

“Anyone can be a group of black people who go to Harvard, but you have to care about each other to be a family, to be a community. That’s what we do in BMF,” Weiler says. “It rubs off, it’s contagious. [Pre-frosh] don’t know what that is but they want that feeling.”

The BMF’s outreach starts even before pre-frosh weekend. The organization coordinates closely with the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program (UMRP) to make calls to admitted black students and host pre-frosh. BMF members make up half of the 70 hosts that have volunteered to host black admits prefrosh weekend, according to Christopher Hill ’05, a BMF member and one of the two UMRP coordinators for black students.

For at least the last six years, the black male coordinator at the UMRP has been a BMF member, including past presidents Sherman and Price. Sherman, who served from 2001 to 2003, says he plugged the BMF when making calls. He says he told such compelling personal stories about the organization that the young men he called would inevitably end up at the BMF table during the prefrosh activities fair.

Just as the IOP attracts aspiring politicians and The Crimson lures budding journalists, Terry hopes the BMF can become the same kind of draw for young black men to come to Harvard. “If you want to get involved in what I call ‘black issues’ but which are [concerns] central to any issue, you will come to Harvard to get involved in the BMF,” Terry says.

Bringing these black men to Harvard isn’t an end in and of itself.

“Harvard is still a giant slow-moving institution, and after four years, you leave, but the [administration] is still there,” Weiler says. “That’s why the BMF is so important. We let new generations know about [the issues] and they start to pick up the fight as well.”

This year, the BMF freshmen have already started to contribute to the BMF’s efforts in concrete ways.

Anderson put together Harvard’s first hip hop festival at the end of February to present hip hop as not just “something that the Mongols do.” The ’08s have also been key in developing BMF’s newest community service initiative, the David Walker program. Owusu-Kesse’s brainchild, the program targets the specific needs of young black boys with an African-American studies curriculum—developed by BMF member Bryan C. Barnhill II ’08—and a life skills tutorial, which includes lessons in STD awareness and resume-writing.

BIG SHOES TO FILL

This past Tuesday, the air in Adams Upper Common Room was muggy after three intense hours of heated discussion. Almost 40 dues-paying members had just elected a new BMF board. Former UC presidential hopeful Moore will step in the shoes of Owusu-Kesse as the next president. “Keep that fire kindled,” Moore said as the members applauded the new board. “We’re gonna do big things.”

It’s not only the current undergrads that are caught up in the buzz of excitement.

Last spring, around the time of the tenth Celebration, seven of the 10 past presidents—the “Honorables”—gathered from all around the country to shoot the breeze and discuss the organization. Busy in their careers as doctors, i-bankers, and band leaders, the Honorables still care about the brotherhood. Filled with wistful pride, the alums could not hide their amazement at how far the BMF had grown in the last 10 years. But it’s what’s coming that the alums have their eyes set on.

“This is just the beginning. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they become,” Ashong says.

The eyes of the alums are trained on the future of the BMF, but they’re not the only ones looking. Because of its strong presence in campus-wide action such as Take Back the Night, the curricular review, and the Darfur divestment campaign, the BMF now has a lot to live up to.

Moore knows this. “Whatever we do, people listen to us,” he asserted at the end of his presidential speech, punctuating his list of ambitions for the upcoming year.

Whether or not these ambitions will be fulfilled is yet to be seen.

But people will be watching.

-Britt Caputo and Kara M. O’Reilly contributed to the reporting of this story.

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