Ed Bordley Grapples with Being Blind, Being Black and Being at Harvard

One evening in early December, Ed Bordley faced a somewhat humiliating situation. That particular evening, he was on his way to Kirkland House to visit Tom Bixby, a good friend and captain of the wrestling team. Ed knocked on the door, but a female voice answered instead of Tom's, inquiring as to who was there. "This is Ed, sorry, I've got the wrong entryway," Ed responded and left in search of the right door. Ten minutes later, as Ed was sitting in Tom's room, the phone rang. Someone was calling to ask if, by chance, Ed was with Tom, and when Tom confirmed that he was sitting right there, the girl on the other end of the line breathed a sigh of relief. Apparently, Ed had been knocking on their door, and her roommate called the police, thinking that Ed was the much-feared rapist who had attacked two Leverett House women at the start of the school year.

Later that same week, Ed got a door slammed in his face, and over Thanksgiving vacation, the police received yet another call about him. The anxiety level among women students fearing attack was high during December--early in the month, Harvard police released a sketch of the suspect showing a black man, tall, and in his early 20's, and many Harvard students seemed to fit the description. There was an explanation as to why women peered out of their peep holes and refused to open the door for Ed. He is black, tall, in his early 20's, and since he is blind, often knocks on the wrong door when he goes to see a friend. But Ed couldn't help asking himself, as the door slammed in his face, how the situation would be different if he were white and if he were a sighted person. "You see, I have to take Harvard on three levels, first as just a student, then as a blind person and then as a black person," he says. There is no important order to any of these categories, but Ed emphasizes that he just doesn't want anyone to make special allowances for him because he is blind or black. He adds that he tries to deal with people, especially Harvard people, by giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Ed and Milt Yasunga, a friend of his, had a running joke between them throughout Ed's freshman year. Milt, a senior and captain of the wrestling team that year, was walking to class with Ed one day, and as they were walking through the Yard Ed noticed that they were walking very slowly. "Hey, you know just because you're blind doesn't mean that you can't walk," Ed recalls saying. Milt picked up the pace a little, but got his revenge on Ed later that year on a double date. While dining, Ed managed to spill some strawberry sauce all over the white suit he was wearing. Milt took the opportunity to tell Ed, "Hey, just because you're blind doesn't mean you have to spill strawberry sauce all over yourself."

Ed laughs when he tells stories like this--he likes to joke about himself with his friends. In fact, Ed can often be heard calling his best friend Tom Bixby a racist, since Tom once suggested that a mutual friend of theirs ask out a white girl whom Ed liked a lot. Rather than silently wondering why Tom didn't think he should ask the girl out, Ed teasingly accused him of being a racist and asked why he couldn't ask her out. The two are good friends and Ed chuckles quietly to himself when he introduces Tom as "This is my friend Tom, the racist."

Sometimes, though, it isn't so easy to joke about racists, and Ed doesn't joke about the subject often with the members of the Phoenix Club who blackballed him in the fall of his sophomore year. Three of Ed's friends quit the club when Ed was not accepted, but Ed wanted to join because he hoped it would give him the opportunity to meet the kind of people who eventually did reject him. The first reason Ed presents to explain why he wasn't admitted is his race. He adds, though, that whenever anything goes wrong, he pins it on being black. Another thing about Ed that he feels did not go over well with the club members was his clothes. He describes his preparations for the screenings this way: "I'm a very colorful dresser. Dressing well is one of the things I enjoy. Now, when I was getting ready to go to lunch with these Phoenix Club guys, my friend Milt told me what I should wear. 'Wear a plain colored shirt and a jacket,' he told me. I know they don't like colorful dressers because my friends told me not to dress the way I usually do. And then, the first time I got into a tux--the first time ever--I was standing in the club talking to Tom and he told me that I had my studs in backwards. 'Go into the bathroom and change those things,' Tom said to me. That's how I knew clothes were important." Ed adds that he felt that he was on stage and that he had to act white at the club. He still feels that joining a club is important and he will become a member of the more liberal Fox Club next month because, he says, "It's important to meet the guys who are always screwing other people. It's important for them to realize that they don't have to do that. And I can't change anything from out here."


Joining a club is taking his philosophy to an extreme. Ed lives in Winthrop House, a House where there are only four other black students, and he tries to be a part of everything around him. He doesn't like to see black students segregating themselves and never puts himself in a situation where there's just white and black. When he speaks honestly about it, he'll say that being blind makes it easier to believe that colors simply don't make a difference. And being blind has an added advantage: it overshadows his blackness and people tend to see him as a blind person first, and then as a black person. All the same, Ed finds it difficult to believe that being black and blind is really an advantage. Putting it on a social level, Ed says, "If I ask a girl out and she says 'no' then I always have to wonder, 'Is it because I'm black or because I'm blind.' And then I have to say, 'Why did this happen to me--where did I go wrong?'"

Things first began going wrong for Ed when he was five and his right eye hemorrhaged. Then at age nine, his left retina became detached, leaving him sightless. Ed says that he doesn't remember anything about losing sight in his right eye, except the operation. But when he couldn't play baseball anymore, the full three years I wondered 'Why the hell am I in this situation,'" Ed says. And he mentions his grandmother, a member of the Holiness Church in Wyoming, Del., where Ed has lived all his life, who told him that if he prayed hard enough he might get his sight back. "They prayed for me at church and on the radio. Can you imagine how much I hoped I'd be able to see again? They were telling me stuff like put your hand on the radio and God will save you. And I did it. It was a big disappointment."

By the time he was 12, Ed had pretty much accepted that this was the way things were going to be. Academics became more important to him and he became a good student. Third grade had been a real setback because he had to learn to read Braille, forcing him to stay back a year in school, but he was able to learn quickly and started to excel. An even greater accomplishment, however, was learning to walk with a cane when he was 14. He spent two summers learning to walk around a city by himself and learning how to cook and play children's games. At first, walking alone was frightening; this forced him to be alert, until he gained enough confidence so that it became natural. The first time he walked by himself, an instructor dropped him at a doctor's office and told him he would have to find his way back on his own. "At first I thought 'Oh God,' but I did it, I really did. I made one wrong turn, but retraced my steps and I made it back." After his freshman year at Harvard, Ed got his dog, Megan, who nine times out of ten will get him where he wants to go. Ed recalls a time when Meg hit number ten and after 45 minutes of wandering around, landed him at the Bio labs instead of wrestling practice. "That got me so mad, but it usually doesn't happen anymore," Ed says, adding that now he rarely worries about whether Meg is on track. What Ed missed the most by being blind is being unable to see how people look--what kinds and colors of clothes they are wearing. He remembers how his family looks, and he can remember colors from the days before he was blind; his favorites are red and purple. Ed says it is important for him to always look his best because he feels most comfortable that way. "Looks matter to sighted people, therefore they are important to me. It shouldn't be important to me to know when I meet someone how they look, but it is." In high school Ed went out with a white girl he liked a lot, until someone told him she was very ugly. "That shook me to the point that I realized that if nobody had ever said anything to me, the relationship might have been something. I knew it shouldn't affect me because I couldn't see anything at all. I'm sure everyone realizes, though, that if you don't look good, then you already have a strike against you. I've realized that people's opinions of good looks are so different that now I won't write off anyone on another person's opinion--it's just for my own mental visual impression that I ask at all."

Ed says that the University is just beginning to provide aid to him for studying and getting around. He used to bring a tape recorder to class, but that didn't even last all the way through freshman year, since he tended to just fall asleep during lecture. Playing the tapes back took too much time, so now he takes notes with a slate and stylus, punching holes in thick manila pieces of papers from right to left so later it can be read from left to right. He is majoring in Spanish--a subject he says he doesn't plan to do anything with, but he wanted very much to learn a language. Large brown folders on his bookshelf containing big sheets of paper are his Spanish dictionary, and underneath that are piles of tapes that are mailed to him on request by a non-profit foundation in New York. If he's lucky, he can get tapes of most of his books, but this year, he and his roommate Mike Schindley say they struck out in tutorial readings. Mike xeroxes his roommate's reading lists and sends away to New York for the tapes--"You know, you have to use a stamp and an addressed envelope for that kind of thing--he can't do that," Mike says teasingly. For the books that are not taped, the University provides readers, but writing papers takes a long time. Ed doesn't like to take advantage of his teachers too much--but a Spanish paper that was due before vacation is coming along rather slowly.

Making friends freshman year wasn't as easy as in high school, which Ed says was the best time of his life--but the wrestling team saved that first year from being a total loss. A Delaware state champion his junior year in high school, Ed is a little discouraged with the way he has wrestled at Harvard, but says he does it more for the enjoyment than to become a national champion. Most referees will give him a touch start on the mat, so he knows where his opponent is, but it's a little harder to wrestle that way because you can't try to run your opponent around a little first. He enjoys wrestling because he likes to be in shape--even though, he adds, he isn't really in the best of shape these days, and he's got a lot of friends on the team--real friends, who aren't racists, so they can joke about the fact that Ed adds a little color to the team, and occasionally sneak up to him when he's sitting on the mat and tackle him. When he wrestles, members of the team stand at the edge of the mat and tell him his position on the mat, but aside from that, he's on his own--and pretty tough at that.

Ed says he tries not to limit himself to anything--and like any other college student he has his dreams. His goal in life is to make a lot of money so that neither he nor his kids have to live the way he did when he was young. "I remember living, until I was four or five, in a two-room house. My Dad's a bricklayer and he built the house we live in now--he and my grandfather. Building that house was a step up--but he had to work so hard. Nobody should have to work that hard. Money, Ed adds, can buy most anything and assures you that you will be safe. You know if you've got 25 cents in your pocket that you can give it to your kid--you don't have to give it to him, but at least you know it's there. When I used to ask my parents for money, they just didn't have it--that's all they could say. I want to spoil my kids to death. I want them to be able to have everything so they can enjoy their lives."

The best way to earn a lot of money, Ed says, is to be a lawyer--and if he doesn't get into law school, he will feel seriously set back. "I better succeed, that's all--it's so deep in me," he says. So far he has succeeded by going to Harvard and leading a kind of double life when he goes home to his old friends, but for the time being he likes it this way because he's got the best of each one.

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