Behind Enemy Lines

“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” - Angela Davis

Black Harvard

Ask anyone who the most important philosopher of the past 500 years is, and nine times out of 10 they’ll respond with Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher credited as the father of modern metaphysics and ethics. He dabbled in anthropology too. In one of his lesser-known papers, he concludes matter-of-factly that “humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites. The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent. The Negroes are far below them”. Multiple courses in and outside of the Harvard philosophy department engage directly with Kant’s writings. Few mention that he was a racist.

I recently took a course of classical and medieval political thought. One of the authors we studied was St. Thomas Aquinas, a giant of the Catholic Church. While reading through his masterpiece “On Law, Morality, and Politics”, we touched on a passage that explained how homosexuality was abhorrent to God’s eternal law. After examining how the passage revealed the importance of nature to medieval political thought, we moved on. The foundation of centuries of violent homophobia was no more than an interesting case study.

The past couple of years have brought a steady spurt of change on Harvard’s campus. “House master” became “faculty dean”, a pretty plaque was placed on Wadsworth House to commemorate four slaves, there were administrative shake-ups to increase support for marginalized student populations. But everyone is loathe to touch that which most roots us to our exclusionary past: the curriculum.

We’re still teaching misogynists, white supremacists, homophobes, and Nazi sympathisers without a word of protest. We sit students down and feed them “the greats” without telling them that “the greats” believed in radical antiblackness or wrote little black notebooks that blamed the corruption of the world on the Jews. This isn’t American elementary school. We don’t need to be force-fed pastoral portraits of the founding fathers that ignore the slaves whose backs they sit on. We need to know the truth. This isn’t a call for censorship—I’m the first to admit that Martin Heidegger was a revolutionary genius. But, like any genius, he’s flawed. And we deserve to receive the whole story, so that we ourselves can make a truly mature judgement on his worth.

This is important not just because we as an institution are inadvertently promoting oppressive traditions of academia and damaging our reputation to boot. It’s important because we’re forcing students like me, black students and queer students and women and non-Western students, to participate in these traditions without telling them the truth.

Eventually, it seems useless to complain. Every time I challenge a text, there’ll just be another white supremacist writer I’ll be ordered to analyze for rhetorical strategies. It’s so ingrained in Harvard’s culture: the princely halls of Widener hold centuries of hate and intellectualized oppression, and we’re sent in every day to pick out our bibliography.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Controversial conversations are controversial for a reason—everyone has an opinion, and different people's opinions usually radically different. If you’re reading a Western writer, for example, you can bet that they had an opinion on race. But you won’t hear it in the classroom. For example, while studying Samuel Beckett—the lauded 20th-century Irish avant-gardist—in your playwriting course, you probably won’t hear how he almost shut down JoAnne Akalaitis’ production of "Endgame" after she cast a black actor. This institution has stunning selective blindness, and it chooses to ignore the things that challenge its core—its tradition.

Harvard likes to tout its origin as a place of education for “native boys”. But let’s remember the chilling implications of this claim. Let’s remember the black and brown bodies ripped from their homes to be absorbed into a dominant colonial culture. Let’s remember the extinction of Native cultures and tongues. Let’s remember the belief that by binding them to an exclusionary power by means of selective education, these powers sought to retain control of the land and peoples.

And this circles us back to the main point: what it means for marginalized students to be hoodwinked into blindly accepting a perverse curriculum. We are those native boys, chained to a cultural power built to exclude us. I do not want to be lied to. I do not want to build idols that secretly plot my dehumanization. I do not want to be ignorant. I want to know what I’m really learning.

Again, this isn’t a plea to end all contact with the past. I want to continue learning from these people. They’re respected for a reason. But I want to know who and what they really are. I want to move beyond a naive, one-dimensional understanding of the academic tradition, and of the culture it represents. Tell us who these people really were, what they really did, what they really believed. I don’t want to be hoodwinked anymore. We—the students who come from traditions, communities, and cultures that have been scorned and attacked by too many of these great masters—deserve better.

Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a Philosophy concentrator living in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.


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