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Blacks at Harvard: Volume Two?

By Thomas A. Underwood, Crimson Staff Writer

The single most familiar remark made by an African-American about Harvard is undoubtedly that made by W.E.B. Du Bois, Class of 1890. “I was in Harvard, but not of it,” he wrote. One wonders what Du Bois, who received his doctorate from the University in 1896, would have said about the publication almost a century later of Blacks at Harvard, a book documenting the history of African-American experiences at Harvard and Radcliffe. Du Bois might ask, as others have, why it took so long for such a collection to appear and why, when it did finally appear, it was through the aegis of New York University Press. Reversing his famous words about his life at Harvard, Du Bois might say that the anthology is of Harvard, but not in it. Yet having devoted as much of his life to higher education as he did to the accurate narration of African-American history, Du Bois would have listened with keen interest to the publishing history of Blacks at Harvard.

The story of the book’s circuitous journey from Harvard Yard to Washington Square began in the mid-1980s. In 1985, Harvard’s Afro-American studies program was facing one of its greatest challenges since the dramatic founding of the department in 1969. The administration had, by many accounts, abandoned the department: funding was scant and there were few concentrators. That fall, civil rights activist Roger Wilkins, who was overseeing a newly-formed external review committee, met with Afro-American studies concentrators and graduate students affiliated with the program. “What should University Hall hear?” he asked. Students spoke compellingly of the need to rebuild the program and to secure the administration’s rededication to it.

Meanwhile, Cabot Professor of English Literature and of Afro-American Studies Werner Sollors, who was then the energetic and resourceful chair of the department, was also working to raise the program’s visibility. With the 350th anniversary of the College less than a year away, he devised a plan. He and a few department members had recently published an informational pamphlet illustrated with photographs of African-American writers of Harvard. Why not ask the administration to underwrite the republication of these authors in a larger pamphlet for distribution at the 350th? The President and Fellows assented, and the wheels were set in motion.

At the time, I was a graduate student in the History of American Civilization Program and was working as Werner’s research assistant. I was supposed to be working on my dissertation, but I soon became so absorbed by the research for the pamphlet that I was unable to tear myself away from Widener Library. Seeing me emerge from the stacks with my arms full of sources, Werner asked me to join him as an editor. As we began work on the project, what shocked both of us was the dearth of secondary literature available on the topic. Most of Harvard’s institutional history, written from the perspective of Boston Brahmins, was tainted by filiopietism.

In the crimson-colored volumes of Harvard history that collect dust on the shelves of the Widener reference room, one can barely find mention of the thousands of African-Americans who received Harvard degrees. For example, the index to Three Centuries of Harvard, the famous history written by Samuel Eliot Morison, Class of 1908, for the tercentenary celebration in 1936, does not even mention Du Bois! Or consider the case half a dozen years ago of a Harvard Crimson reporter who wrote a feature article in which he praised University President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, for democratizing Harvard housing by building the River Houses. The reporter did not even mention that Lowell, in 1922, attempted to limit the admission of Jews to the College and prevent African-Americans from residing in the Yard dormitories. The dormitory policy was rescinded only after national protest led by prominent African-American leaders such as James Weldon Johnson.

Hoping to correct at least a portion of the record, Werner and I pushed toward our fall 1986 deadline. The Afro-American studies offices became frenetic as the pamphlet grew into a paperback. From the students who made an index by using three-by-five cards to the faculty members who contributed essays, the book inspired the most wonderful sort of communal effort. Professor Caldwell Titcomb ’47, the musicologist and theater critic, soon joined us as a co-editor. Next, we sought the expert guidance of the late DuBois Professor of History and of Afro-American Studies Nathan I. Huggins, who, with Ewart G. Guinier ’33, had brought the Afro-American studies program through its early years.

Despite lost sleep and technical crises, we made the deadline; 600 copies of Varieties of Black Experience at Harvard were bound and distributed at the 350th anniversary celebration. When the print run was quickly exhausted and suppliers requested book orders, we sent a manuscript to Harvard University Press to see whether they might publish an expanded edition. But when Harvard politely declined the project, we turned elsewhere. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., who was then professor of English, comparative literature and Africana studies at Cornell University, generously offered to publish an expanded edition of the book in a series he was editing for Greenwood Press. Yet Greenwood could afford neither to typeset the book nor to reprint any of the rare photographs we had located.

That was 1987, and Blacks at Harvard, the larger book we eventually published, did not appear for another six years. During that time, the collection—which publishers kept saying would be too expensive to produce and would have a market limited to Harvard graduates—was rejected for publication by Oxford University Press, Beacon Press, the University of Massachusetts Press, the University of Illinois Press, Northeastern University Press, New York University Press and for a second time by Harvard University Press.

Undeterred, we continued making major additions to the collection. William Melvin Kelley contributed a remarkable short story entitled, “My Next to Last Hit.” Eileen Southern, who studied musicology at NYU before becoming the first African-American woman to earn full tenure at Harvard, wrote an essay about her pioneering experience. Huggins, to whose memory we dedicated the volume, wrote a revealing retrospective. And Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School (HLS) wrote the much-needed introduction. Hearing of these additions, New York University Press finally agreed to publish the collection. When Blacks at Harvard appeared in 1993, the book’s title page sported not the “Veritas” crest, but with the NYU Press logo--the Washington Square arch.

Eight years later, a new edition of the anthology is sorely needed. While the present edition continues to attract readers, much has transpired in Harvard’s Afro-American Studies program since Gates took the helm. A retrospective by him would round out the collection nicely. Entries by or about Fletcher University Professor and Professor of Afro-American Studies Cornel R. West ’74 and other distinguished faculty who left prominent academic posts to join Harvard’s program are needed. Given the book’s move to NYU, it would also be fascinating to have a new essay by Professor Derrick Bell, who, citing the failure of the administration at the HLS to tenure a woman of color, left for NYU after the book had been published. Boskey Professor of Law Lani Guinier has since become the first African-American woman to be tenured at HLS, and she ought to appear in the book. Finally, the collection ought to include many more figures from the worlds of business, science and medicine.

Despite the multiplicity of perspectives an anthology allows, it may not be the ideal medium for a new account of African-American history at Harvard. A better scenario might be for a professor with cross-disciplinary training in English, Afro-American studies and history to write a full-length study of the varieties of African-American experience at Harvard and Radcliffe. A scholar with W.E.B. Du Bois’s interdisciplinary interests could produce a narrative of enormous academic value and of national interest. Any takers?

Thomas A. Underwood, a preceptor in expository writing, is co-editor of Blacks at Harvard.

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