A Look at the Dark Room Collective and the Psychedelic Club

When the poet Kevin Young ’92 wrote in his book of cultural criticism, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, that “once you’re in, you’re in forever,” he did not mean Harvard, or his house, or a final club. Young meant the Dark Room Collective, one of the dozens of unofficial intellectual societies that have cropped up at Harvard over the centuries.
By Aidan M. Fitzsimons and Margaux R. E. Winter

When the poet Kevin Young ’92 wrote in his book of cultural criticism, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, that “once you’re in, you’re in forever,” he did not mean Harvard, or his house, or a final club. Young meant the Dark Room Collective, one of the dozens of unofficial intellectual societies that have cropped up at Harvard over the centuries. Some of these societies blipped in and out of existence with little to distinguish them, but others gave rise to great minds, national social movements, and celebrated creative endeavors. A few even rubbed against the grain of mainstream Harvard culture. This week, FM takes you inside the histories of two of the groups: the Dark Room Collective and the notorious Psychedelic Club.

Dark Room Collective

On the 8th of December 1987, Harvard students Sharan Strange ’81 and Thomas Sayers Ellis drove from Cambridge to New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine to celebrate the life of the late writer James Baldwin. On that somber day, Ellis and Strange, aspiring writers themselves, realized they needed to make a major change in their educational and artistic trajectories.

They did not want to wait for the deaths of their idols to celebrate them—they needed to find a way to learn from the art of black poets while they were living. Led by this sentiment, Ellis and Strange founded the Dark Room Collective, a community of poets who would learn from one another and invite notable poets to visit Cambridge and share their work and knowledge. In one poem, Ellis wrote: “Baldwin died/ and we became a church.”

Back in Cambridge, the two poets turned their 3-story Victorian-style house in Central Square—31 Inman Street—into a hub for black artists. Though the building was not far from Harvard’s campus, the Collective was not affiliated with the University. In a 1998 interview with the journal Callaloo, Young recalled that the Collective provided a lesson in “the necessity of working hard, com[ing] up with something new––no one wanted to be the weak link in the chain! It was like joining a big band or something and cutting your chops that way, before you became a soloist or had your own gig.”

The group worked foremost as a literary organization. In the Callaloo interview, Ellis explained their process: “[W]e’d read one book, then trade and share different books. We didn’t always read them in the order they were written, but would place them in order and talk about why one book was written after another; we looked for the things that held books together, argued with decisions authors made and made critical judgments, all the time developing our own tastes and literary vocabularies. Lonely fun done together.”

They also wrote and edited works of their own. The Collective set up a system of pairing older poets with younger ones to review each other’s work. Visiting writers would also help critique the members’ poems and essays—and there were a lot of visitors. The Collective was sprawling, both in terms of its inclusivity and its occupation of physical space. Sometimes the house was so full, audiences for readings would spill out onto the street. In a 2005 interview, member Tisa Bryant said, “We’d get some water and some snacks and some stuff and put some music on, clean the house and everybody would come in.”

The Collective offered more than just literary development for students. It played a vital role in the visibility and solidarity of black poets in America. Strange noted that the Collective provided black writers with “a way of overcoming isolation,” and was an opportunity to “share similar struggles with writing with other Black people.” During the 80’s, mainstream poetry was dominated by the voices of white Americans and Europeans, but the Dark Room Collective subverted that norm. It was a place to celebrate the voices of black writers who were being ignored in white, mainstream literary groups.

Several of the members of the Dark Room Collective went on to win notable awards, including United States Poets Laureates Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith, New Yorker poetry editor Kevin Young, and MacArthur Genius Colson Whitehead, alongside many others.

And it made room for more kinds of black experiences than Harvard’s white-centric climate had previously allowed. “Thank God there were so many of us,” Ellis told Callaloo. “[We] got to hear so many people and so many people being straight, gay, and of Haitian descent and people from the South and people from the Midwest and the West Coast.” The Dark Room Collective, as Natasha Trethewey put it, took a stand against any “essentialized notion of blackness or black experience,” it made room for “different experiences, different voices, different styles.”

Psychedelic Club

Timothy Leary, a psychologist at Harvard, was first introduced to psychedelic mushrooms during a 1960 trip to Mexico. Leary’s first taste of psilocybin profoundly changed his personal and professional trajectory.

“In four hours by that swimming pool in Guernavaca I learned more about the mind, the brain and its structures than I did in the preceding 15 years as a diligent psychologist,” Leary wrote in his memoir, “Flashbacks.”

“I learned that the brain is an underutilized biocomputer containing billions of unaccessed neurons. I learned that normal consciousness is one drop in an ocean of intelligence. That consciousness and intelligence can be systematically expanded,” he wrote. “The brain can be reprogrammed. That the knowledge of how the brain works is the most pressing scientific issue of our time. I was beside myself with enthusiasm, convinced we had found the key [for behavior change] we had been looking for.”

After 1960, Leary was driven with messianic fervor to investigate psilocybin, which he suspected would unlock the secrets of the mind and subjective consciousness. That year, he began the Harvard Psilocybin Project with his partner Richard Alpert in order to study the drug’s effects on the human psyche and unleash its potential, which to Leary seemed nearly unlimited.

In the first experiment of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, Leary gave 175 participants (mostly men in their late 20s) doses of psilocybin. Responses were overwhelmingly positive. According to the Project’s records, over half of participants claimed they had learned a great deal about themselves and that psilocybin had changed their lives for the better. Ninety percent of participants wanted to take it again.

Outside of the official research of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, a cult-like circle began forming around Leary and these psychedelic drugs. According to Don Lattin, former club member and author of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” Leary frequently “turned on” new people, often inviting them to his suburban home in Newton.

Leary was constantly surrounded by a rotating cast of celebrity characters, including his prominent psychology colleagues, religion scholar Huston Smith, the poet Allen Ginsberg, the writer William Burroughs, and even the author Aldous Huxley, who also helped pioneer psychedelics with his 1954 memoir, “The Doors of Perception,” one of the first western accounts of mescaline.

It wasn’t long, however, before the Psychedelic Club ran into trouble. Leary grew less and less concerned with the science of the studies, favoring advocacy for the drug over research—a pursuit that was met with strong disapproval from Harvard. When Leary did conduct research, he did so using unorthodox methods, drawing skepticism from the scientific community. Leary often took drugs alongside his test subjects, for example, flouting standard practice.

In response, some of Leary’s colleagues, including Frank Barron, distanced themselves from the Project. Shortly after, Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) replaced Leary as the Project’s senior advisor.

Eventually, the club collapsed. As Lattin told it, the final straw came from two undergraduates—Ronnie Winston and Andrew Weil—who wanted desperately to try out the psychedelic experience. Leary refused the two students, because at 18, they were too young to participate in the project. But Winston soon developed a close relationship with Alpert, who gave him some psilocybin at a party.

When Weil found out, he was overcome with jealousy. He decided to destroy the club. Weil called Winston’s father—the wealthy diamond magnate, Harry Winston—who pressured his son to speak up about his involvement with the Psychedelic Club. Winston’s confession was all the evidence Weil needed to take down the Harvard Psilocybin Project in a scathing Crimson Op-Ed.

In 1963, Alpert and Leary were fired from Harvard. In response to his dismissal, Leary famously quipped, “LSD is more important than Harvard.” Soon after, the two founded the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF), an independent corporation to further investigate psychedelics.

“The relationship of our project to Harvard has always been uneasy,” Leary wrote regarding his work. “We were enthusiastically introducing a powerful, non-verbal, meta-intellectual agent into a community which is fervently dedicated to words and intellectuality. We appreciated and sympathized with the academy’s dilemma, and congenially separated when IFIF was formed.”

The split may have been good for Leary in the long run. After Harvard, he and Alpert became the self-stylized prophets of 60’s counterculture, popping up in places like Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, and giving interviews in the pages of popular magazines. Three years after his firing, Learing told Playboy about his first psychedelic experience.

“At that time, I was a middle-aged man involved in the middle-aged process of dying,” he said. “My joy in life, my sensual openness, my creativity were all sliding downhill. Since that time, six years ago, my life has been renewed in almost every dimension.”

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Retrospection