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Black Harvard

By Matthew K. Clair

We all know Harvard. At least, we think we do.

Even someone who never sets foot in the Yard knows the place. It’s where presidents come from, where the smartest students study, where leading academics toil away in labs. These are the dominant narratives here. No matter if we’re praising Harvard or pillorying it, they are the stories we have at our immediate disposal. The thing about dominant narratives, however, is that by nature they make little room for nuance—for nuance complicates things.

I want to talk about Black History Month.

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson—a Harvard graduate—founded Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month. An educator, Woodson envisioned Negro History Week as a means to reeducate whites, as well as blacks, on what it means to be a black American. In the Journal of Negro History, Woodson writes that racism is “the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”

For Woodson, not only were blacks marginal in the telling of our American story, but they were also mischaracterized. If blacks were to be treated as equals, Woodson maintained, the incomplete narrative of slavery and family dysfunction had to be nuanced. With a certain idealism that befit a man who was both the son of slaves and a graduate of Harvard, Woodson believed that telling of the accomplishments of individual blacks during Negro History Week would change America’s dominant narrative about blacks as a group. Yet, a century and a black president later, the dominant cultural tropes—thug, welfare queen, baby mama—subsist despite the veritable parade of remarkable individuals contradicting them. A simple accounting of extraordinary individuals has, perhaps, proven insufficient.

The dominant narrative about Harvard—the one about professors and presidents and bright students—suffers from a similar problem to the one Woodson tried to rectify. It has no color to it. It is not a white narrative, per se, nor a narrative that intentionally excludes women or people of color. But what is the norm, what is average, what is expected, tends to be white and male. Study after study reveals the preferences our culture gives to white men. To tell a colorblind story, then, is often to tell a white story.

When I tell the story of my time at Harvard as an undergraduate, I tell the story of the freshman step team, of my roommates, and of Kuumba performances. I tell the story of staying up late on weeknights watching re-runs of “A Different World” and unconsciously melding the show’s (historically black) Hillman College with my own (personally black) Harvard College. I tell the story of David L. Evans and S. Allen Counter, mentors to hundreds of students over the past three decades.

One story I have never told is the story of the morning of my commencement when processing to the Yard I was shouted at, above all the fanfare, by an old white alumnus watching from the crowd: “They let you graduate? Must be grade inflation!”

You’ve probably never heard my Harvard story.

We all want recognition, the social theorists tell us. When I was a sophomore at Harvard, I led a project to document other black Harvard stories. A few scholars and students had documented this history before, but these accounts were incomplete. My team spent our days in the Harvard Archives and on The Harvard Crimson website, poring over yearbooks and reading newspaper clips. We interviewed alumni, bus drivers, dining hall workers, and professors. Our project aggregated into a 60,000 word manuscript that has been sitting on my computer, untouched, since 2008.

This year, I happened upon the manuscript. Reading it, I relearned so many stories that disappear in the everyday of campus life: that Widener Library was designed by a black architect, that the first two black graduates of Radcliffe—Alberta V. Scott and Gertrude Baker—used their degrees to teach at black schools in the South, and that in February of 1952, a group of white students burned a cross in front of a dorm housing the only black students of the class of 1955. Taken as a whole, these stories offer a collective accounting of the integral role blacks have played in campus life. In a recent interview in Ebony Magazine, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reminds us that blacks “are as American as any other element in American history.” These stories remind us that the same is true of blacks at Harvard.

James Baldwin once wrote that “it is the writer, not the statesman, who is our strongest arm.” As a student of sociology, I understand that narratives matter—they motivate social action and they help us make sense of our world. It is hard to make the case, empirically, that Black History Month has changed, or ever could change, the behavior of a bigot or the dominant way we tell stories about blacks. And yet we continue the tradition every year. Part of our commitment is simply inertia. But a good part of it has to do with that annual moment of recognition, however nuanced and however fleeting, when our voice is finally heard.

Matthew K. Clair ’09 is a Ph.D. student in sociology at Harvard. He is tweeting about #blackharvard all February @mathuclair.

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