In Cabot House this April, Mecca J. Nelson '92 saw a poster announcing a speech sponsored by the conservative magazine Peninsula The speech, whose subject was the relationship of white liberalism in the 1960s to Black sexuality. was titled "Spade Kicks," and the poster portrayed a silhouette of a Black woman stripping for a white audience.
Appalled by the title of the speech and the picture on the poster, Nelson set out to do something about it. The day after the poster went up, Nelson had talked to a Peninsula staff member about it, and met with Assistant Dean of the College Hilda Hernandez-Gravelle and Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57. Within another two days, Nelson and another student had written a letter to The Crimson explaining why poster was offensive to Blacks.
That Nelson protest was both public and private is representative of her Harvard career. As president of the Black Students Association (BSA), but also in a vast variety of other activities, Nelson has struggled to educate other students about issues of race and gender and fought for change without burning bridges.
Nelson grew up in Flint, Michigan, a blue-collar automobile city whose decline was vividly documented in the film Roger and Me." She attended magnet public high school in Flint, and her experiences there helped spark her interest at Harvard.
"My school was the most racially balanced in the city, but by the time you are in middles school the division of the races is already established," Nelson says.
"It's very difficult to cross those lines, and for people like me who tired to, it was a very difficult experience justifying myself to black students and white students at the same time," Nelson continues. "So I came here because I wanted to be free of those boundaries."
Nelson lived in Straus Hall during her first year, and after several months growing close to other students in her entryway, Nelson found another community through the Freshman Black Table (FBT). "I think that like may other Black students who come here, a lot of times I felt like some strange person who dropped out of the sky," she says. "At high school, I didn't have any other Black students who were up to my level academically. And that was a problem. I was often ostracized, criticized for doing this much hard work."
"I felt like I found my comrades in Freshman Black Table, because these were all people who had a similar experience feeling like they were the only person who is alive," she continues. "Just being able to talk to them, to share experiences with them, was wonderful. I knew they were out there. I just didn't know where they were."
Nelson was elected as one of the FBT's liaisons to the BSA, and for the next two years she grew more and more involved with the larger organization, serving as the BSA's recording secretary during her sophomore year. At the end of that year, Nelson was not planning to run for another BSA office because she wanted to take a semester off. But she was persuaded to run for president, after one of the other officers convinced her that the BSA needed her experience to survive as a productive organization.
"I reluctantly agreed to run," Nelson says. "I think that has been my feeling about the group. it's something I felt I had to make a sacrifice for, and I did. It's the kind of thing where there is only a really small core group of people who keep the organization going, and I felt that since I had the experience, since I had the committment, why not?"
"We can't possibly not have a BSA one this campus, and I think we were kind of faced with that at that point," she continues. "So I decided to go ahead and to it."
During Nelson's tenure as head of BSA, she guided the organization through two of Harvard's most dramatic recent controversies: the protests to push for a stronger Afro-American Studies Department and the debate over a Confederate flag hung by a Kirkland House student.
In October 1990, the BSA and Afro-American Studies concentrators met with top Harvard officials to discuss the need to revive the moribund department. After an unproductive meeting, the Afro-American Studies concentrators staged a sit-in at University Hall to dramatize their demands for more faculty.
Nelson and the BSA had not know about the sit-in beforehand, and did not participate. Nelson chose instead to try to mediate between the administration and the protestors. The sit-in ended peacefully, and the University's subsequent success in hiring high-profile professors was, many say, a result of the very visible student protest.
Despite the eventual revival of the department, Nelson regrets not having taken a more active position and joined the protestors. "I feel that we [in the BSA] were kind of timid in our action," she says. "We didn't want to sit in, but we wanted to support those who were. Looking back I would have had the board and the membership agree to sit-in with the others because that would have been such a strong showing."