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.

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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.