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Black Students at Harvard: A Problem Of Image

By Mercedes A. Laing

Sambo, Aunt Jemima, Amos and Andy--historically, blacks have been conscious of public images of themselves because these images have had a tendency to harden into stereotypes. It's difficult to gauge the importance of an image, because its effects are intangible and hard to measure. But in racial issues, image is as important as reality, because what often underlies people's actions are certain preconceptions that are too ingrained to be recognized. And in recent years black students and administrators have grown concerned about their image here.

David L. Evans, senior admissions officer, said recently that black students in white colleges suffer from a negative image created by one-sided media coverage over the past six years.

Black students at Harvard became news in 1969, when the first class containing more than 100 of them were enrolled. Though blacks had graduated from Harvard and Radcliffe for almost a century, their academic qualifications had never been questioned on a large scale. Black students had been too small in number and too dispersed to attract much attention.

But after the increase in black enrollment in 1969, articles about blacks at Harvard began appearing in national publications. A glance at issues of the New York Times for the period reveals articles on black campus political activity--demonstrations, building takeovers resulting in disciplinary action. Students have cited as a culmination of all this publicity the publication of an article by Prof. Martin Kilson in a Sept. 1973 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

In the article--entitled "The Black Experience at Harvard"--Kilson contended that black students here isolated themselves and formed below average academically. That article sparked a small flurry of rebuttals and counter-rebuttals.

Evans says he can't recall a single article on the successes of black students here during that period. Negative publicity like the Kilson piece, he claims, has cast black students here in an unfair light, and has seriously hurt recruiting efforts aimed at minorities.

An image of black students as "ethnocentric, semi-literate, ill-prepared black militants" resulted, he claims, "supported" by pictures of blacks eating, living and socializing together.

Walter Clair '77, worked in the admissions office as a work-study student for the past two years, mainly in minority recruiting. "The image created in the press has been negative," he says. "It defin itely hurts recruiting. When people are applying to schools they definitely don't want to feel the reason they got in was because they were black."

Clair says that many black parents are responsible for fostering the negative image in their children.

"Before the students come to school, they've heard alot about sit-ins and demonstrations that have happened on college campuses. Going to college for most black people is a rare thing, so black students and their parents tend to value the experience more. The general tendency is to not want their children to be involved in anything that might jeopardize their status at school."

Clair says Harvard understands that third world students have special needs, but chooses to ignore them.

"It appears to the white student that black people are always asking something for nothing," Clair says. "Harvard plays it up. They say, why can't your student organization or Afro be like other departments? Well, it can't be, with only one tenured professor. They all know this, they just never mention the fact that they understand.

Everything Clair says is stated calmly and non-argumentatively, in line with his view that everything blacks demand has rational basis.

"We're not any different than other students. We're not asking any special favors. There's a logical reason behind everything we want.

"Harvard doesn't do anything to counter the negative image. May be elements inside want to keep it alive. Most people are so conformed and apathetic they really don't care. They say, "the civil rights movement is dead. We've given them all we can. Do they want to be white now?'"

* * *

Ngozi Okonjo '76 has a unique vantage point because while she is black, she is not an American--she's from the town of Ogwashi-Uku in Nigeria.

She said that before coming to Harvard, she had read about blacks being admitted on a quota system but didn't believe it because it was written by whites. Still, she was surprised to find blacks here as "hard-working and professionally oriented as they are."

"Basically, though, I didn't think in terms of black and white at Harvard before I came because in my country, whites are in such a minute minority, and can be sent away anytime if they don't conform to the government's attitude and way of doing things."

Okonjo says that because she is African, the negative image of blacks doesn't apply as much to her as to other black students at Harvard.

"Foreign students are in a different category. We're regarded as foreign students before we're regarded as black."

"When white people learn I'm African, their attitude is different. They're nicer, more friendly and more willing to get to know me."

Okonjo thinks the image problem could be alleviated if there was more contact between blacks and whites. Though she views it as a shared responsibility, she says it would be more realistic for blacks to make the initial effort.

"It's not their [the whites] image, why would they try to do anything about it?"

Fath Davis '76, retiring chairman of the Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American students, remembers when her high school counselor advised her to "go to City College and major in home ec," despite her excellent grades. Davis takes that as evidence of the "pervasive, invidious" effect a negative image of blacks has had on whites, an image whose existence she says is "fact, not opinion."

"It's most significant impact has been on the white community's attitude toward black students. The quote, unquote scholarly articles written have legitimized prejudices already held against black people. It reveals itself in subtle ways; it's not overtly clear."

Fath says the same image has affected some blacks by making them want to "take the burden of the race on their shoulders.

"It's engendered a lot of self-doubt in black students that otherwise might not have been there. This self-doubt expresses itself in a lot of ways." She remembers a recruiting trip in 1974 when she met a prospective black freshwoman who said she wanted to major in applied math to "show all the white people that a black woman can be good in applied math.

"That's bad in terms of someone's personal development," Fath says "It stems from a lack of confidence, not from confidence. White people don't come here and say, 'I'm going to show blacks [that I can major in applied math.]'"

"Besides, the idea of one black person in applied math changing white racist attitudes is ridiculous."

* * *

Marvin Bagwell '76 thinks black students here had a negative image two years ago, but not any more. He talks about Harvard in terms of where it will take him after graduation. He sees his long list of extracurricular activities--president of Crimson Key, Mather House Council, member of the Coop Board of Directors--and his summer job as a buyer for a New York department store--as proof of marketable skills.

"When it comes to the real world, being black and having a degree from Harvard means more than being white [and having a degree from Harvard.]. It means you've been certified by the Establishment as being 'safe.' You're able to do the work; you're efficient."

He says a Harvard background makes you a member of "the club," and he believes it will help him later to effect change within the system.

Marvin says whites think, "'If you're black and you're going to Harvard, you must really be good, and since we have to fill our affirmative action quota, we'll take you.' They'd rather have a black from Harvard or Yale than from Howard or Fisk."

The only time pre-conceived notions of blacks have touched him here was when he first joined Crimson Key two years ago, Marvin says.

"I would walk into the admissions office and say, 'Hello, I'm your tour guide,' and people would have to pause a minute. They didn't expect to see a black as a tour guide after reading Kilson's article.

"I define negative impression as surprise, and I don't detect it anymore when I go out as a legitimate representative of Crimson Key."

The performance of blacks themselves has resulted in the change, he says. "There are many blacks here who are constantly proving that we can do just as well here as whites and even better. White Americans now realize there are blacks in this country. It's almost impossible to find an all-white environment anymore, except perhaps exclusive clubs like the Fox Club. Wait for that club to admit blacks, then we'll really be somewhere."

* * *

William Fetcher '76 analyzes the question of image in concrete terms by placing it in a political context. He says that it was probably not accidental that pictures of blacks playing cards in the Union were published in national magazines, while pictures of whites engaged in similar activities were not. "It had a tremendous effect on people. I'm sure the alumni started wondering, what kind of black students are going up there? If they showed white students' beer parties on Saturday night, I'm sure they'd be worried about the calibre of white students here. But they never talk about their water balloon fights or panty raids."

Fletcher, who is also known as Ahmed Qasseem, recalls a water fight that shorted the electrical system in Hurlbut, his freshman dorm.

"Did anyone report it in the press? No. People would be too worried about the future leaders of the country. They'd think a lot of degenerates were coming out of this place."

There has been a change in the type of black person admitted to Harvard, Fletcher says, as a result of a deliberate admissions policy.

"They're seeking out people with less of a social conscience," he said. "Over the past few years there's been a decline in [black] people's belief that they owe something to the people that really got them here--the black community. "Those that they're bringing in conform to a lot of what Kilson wanted--more middle class, and less interested in the community."

Fletcher says he views the reduction in black admission--along with the DeFunis Case, cutbacks on social programs and the current debate in the scientific community over IQ--as attempts "to legitimize white supremacist beliefs and practices." He implies that these attempts are deliberate efforts to make people skeptical of their fellow students.

"It hurts people in the midst of a severe national and political crisis," he says. "They need to unite across nationalities, and it's hard to do so, except on the basis of equality. Fletcher sees the polarization between black and white students as a reflection of their skepticism about each other, and adds that there's a "tremendous amount of patronizing" on the part of white students.

"White students don't think blacks exist as their intellectual equals or challenge, but exist as a tape recorder exists. You talk into it; but don't expect a response."

"It's good to shatter every racist idea they have; it helps your own ego," he said "but you can't play into the stereotype."

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