This is part four in a series of op-eds by members of Harvard student groups welcoming the Class of 2021 to campus.
To the Class of 2021:
Though we would sometimes prefer for it to happen suddenly, change is more often gradual. The process of making Harvard College more inclusive is a prime example.
Harvard College admitted its first students in 1636. It did not admit a black undergraduate until it admitted Beverly Garnett Williams in 1847. Williams, however, never matriculated here: He died just before the 1847-48 school year. After Williams’s death, the College didn’t accept another black student until Richard Theodore Greener was admitted; Greener became the first African American to graduate from Harvard College in 1870. Of course, no African American women attended Harvard until Harvard and Radcliffe merged in 1977, though Alberta V. Scott was the first black woman to graduate from Radcliffe (in 1898). Until the 1970s, Harvard College admitted fewer than 12 black undergraduates each year; only in recent years has the percentage of black undergraduates enrolled approached the percentage of black Americans.
According to demographic data, black people have finally reached equality at Harvard: the admitted Class of 2021 is 14.6 percent black whereas the U.S. population is 13.3 percent black. For that, the University should pat itself on the back. But numbers are not all there is to inclusion. To be included as part of an institution such as Harvard would mean having full access to everything it has to offer. That includes knowing how to access those resources, whether it’s knowing how to network or how to impress a professor or TF so they’ll write you a glowing recommendation letter upon request.
Inclusion also means not being subject to prejudice. This means not being accused of taking a spot from another applicant, as if black students are gifted spots through affirmative action. It means not being asked if you can read. It means not being asked if you speak African when you state your heritage—never mind that Africa is a continent with over 1,000 spoken languages. It means not being asked to speak for the experiences of all black people in section. It also means not having to hear that one kid in section defend the free speech rights of people literally opposed to your existence as their equals—namely, white supremacists and neo-Nazis—as if hate speech should fall under free speech and deserve protection.
The toll navigating Harvard without a road map takes isn’t always visible, nor is the toll taken by dealing with microaggressions daily. They are felt all the same. If you’re a black Harvard student, you will likely at some point feel like Harvard isn’t meant for you—that you would have been happier somewhere else. Such feelings arise in students of all races, but as a black student, you will have to deal with the feeling that your discontent is because you are black, and Harvard was never meant for black people.
But when those feelings emerge, remember these three things. First, you deserve your spot here. Second, given that you deserve to be here, you are entitled to feel that you belong here. And third, there are other students here who can sympathize with those feelings.
That’s more or less why black student organizations exist here. The dozen or so active black student organizations were all created at least in part so black students could find homes in them. Kuumba, BlackCAST, and KeyChange were also created with the goal of giving voice to black voices and creativity. Harvard Society of Black Scientists and Engineers and Black Pre-Law Association were chartered as pre-professional organizations. Some black organizations were created to serve specific groups: black men, black women, Africans, Nigerians, West Indians. Regardless of the target communities of each of these groups, they were created in hopes that anyone who wanted to be part of their community would feel welcomed, accepted, and supported.
Sometimes we approach that ideal. Too often, however, we fall short in various ways. Our communities sometimes inadvertently promote narrow constructions of masculinity and femininity. They also don’t do enough to support international students in their transition to the United States and a different academic system. Once we accidentally scheduled major events for two black organizations at the same time, making people feel like they had to choose between two parts of themselves. Each year, we have events that cost a lot of money or require formal clothes that community members might not have or be able to afford. Sometimes, much like Harvard, we unintentionally exclude the very students we aim to include.
Missteps, however, have never been reason to stop pursuing a goal. We write as presidents and a vice president of black organizations to say that just as this school is yours, so is this community. This remains true no matter how many or how few meetings you attend, and no matter how many black students you block with. One of the hardest parts of Harvard is finding your place; we hope you find yours, whether it’s in a black student group or somewhere else.
Ata D. Amponsah ’19, vice president of the Harvard African Students’ Association, is a Neurobiology concentrator in Kirkland House. Matthew Moore ’19, president of the Black Men’s Forum, is a Government concentrator in Mather House. Janae Strickland ’19, president of the Association of Black Harvard Women, is a Sociology concentrator in Eliot House. They write on behalf of the Harvard African Students’ Association, the Harvard Black Men’s Forum, and the Association of Black Harvard Women.
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