I have always been taken by surprise when I encounter the name “Harvard” in the books I read or movies I watch. When one of my professors is cited, when I hear the names of streets I walk down, when a room is described that looks just like the one I sleep in, I am slightly taken aback, remembering that yes, I actually do go to Harvard, and no this is not a dream. In meta moments, the very mention of its name — capital “H” Harvard — used to serve as a reminder of all that I had “achieved.” Yes, I did deserve this place with its fancy wines overflowing from underground cellars and its talk of Ulysses and Nietzsche and Kant and its rooms painted fully gold and its culture of wealth, a culture that drowns out the realities of life beyond frivolous things. Somehow an application I submitted three years ago, which now feels to me almost like a random compilation of words and numbers on a page, became my ticket into the ruling elite.
But this ticket does not come without its price.
This place is not built for us, you see. The brick of its buildings are too stiff and the books on the shelves of its overwhelming reading rooms erase our existence and confine us to the spaces between lines. Its almost 300-year-old buildings are firm in their stature and resistant to changing beyond what the structures, drawn up in plans that have browned and withered away, envisioned for them. And so we — the ones who have been imagined here only as subjects or slaves — pour ourselves into the moulds of the empty space their composition leaves us, bending and twisting into unnatural shapes to find ways of being that don’t, at first, seem torturous. We walk differently, we erase our accents, we train our taste buds to enjoy the taste of steak that bleeds as if it were still alive.
Simultaneously, we work to push boundaries. We imagine new spaces on old (stolen) land, we put up portraits of black men to mask reality, we try to force love down the throats of things meant only to hate. Our vision for this place becomes optimistic to a fault: We talk of plans to diversify final clubs we have been tokenized by, carrying blind spots around the silhouettes of the people who serve us at fancy cocktail parties. We boast of interviews at firms that hold a morality that is thin and fragile, like the green paper of the dollar bills it is constructed on. We avoid eye contact with the women who clean the bathrooms in our study spaces, lest they remind us too much of the people who bore us. We become contortionists as our bodies bend and bend and bend, almost to their breaking points, to integrate.
By existing here, no matter how painful this existence may be, we become implicated in the exploitation our “home” is built upon. Our bodies tower over pitiful rocks on the ground meant to commemorate all that our people lost when being forced to construct their own destruction. The lobster that is served to us at exclusive College events is financed by an institution whose endowment continues to profit off the bondage of our siblings. The people who labor to keep this place running are struggling to get by. In so many ways, we remain willfully ignorant, kidding ourselves into thinking that “diversity and inclusion” are the keys that unlock vindication for the horrors that exist just under the surface of this place.
To my past self and the generations of students who’ve fought this fight: Build a multicultural center in a burning house and the center will burn down with it. This is a space built on faulty foundations. We need an alternative existence, one not marked by fighting for a slice of the rotten pie.
I was taken by surprise again when DuBois wrote of his time at Harvard in his autobiography “Dusk of Dawn”. This time, the surprise does not come from by the prestige of being able to claim the alma mater of a legend like him but in the powerful advice his own experiences hold for us: “I was in Harvard but not of it and realized all the irony of ‘Fair Harvard.’ I sang it because I liked the music.”
DuBois gives us a model for resisting Harvard’s moral failings without begging to be included in them. Instead, we’ll operate covertly: Extract its resources, every possible penny, every ounce of knowledge, every brilliant thinker's thought, and redistribute them, like Robin Hood, to the communities we owe everything to. The privilege of our access necessitates this.
Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology and African American Studies concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.