“Where are you really from?”
Kaya R. Bos ’20 used to answer “slave Black.” Jarah K. Cotton ’23 would say “regular Black.” But when Alexa J. J. Brown ’20 sent an email to hundreds of Harvard students, she started a process that gave them a more fitting response — and eventually culminated in the formation of the Harvard College Generational African American Students Association.
Addressed to the mailing lists of the Black Students Association and the Association of Black Harvard Women, the email’s subject line read: “Calling All Black American Identifying Folk!!”
Samantha C. W. O’Sullivan ’22 and Bos responded immediately. Animated dinners in Winthrop dining hall soon ensued. And months later, Brown’s plan for “some sort of get together for people on campus who identify as Black/African American” evolved into GAASA, an official Harvard College student organization.
O’Sullivan’s grandfather, Reverend Isaiah Webb, coined the term “Generational African American” or “GAA,” during one of many conversations with his granddaughter about the Black diaspora. The invention finally created a label for the community of Black folk who trace their lineage in the United States back for centuries.
With the formation of GAASA, this title infiltrated the Black Harvard zeitgeist.
“Slave Black,” “regular Black,” “regular-degular negro,” and “just Black,” could retreat into the archives of memory. “Generational African American,” O’Sullivan found, “implies descendants of enslaved people without having to have that in the name, and it’s so powerful that we can do that.”
Still, the term GAA is Harvard-specific, unfamiliar to most of the Americans it describes. As I’ve been working on this article, recounting tidbits to my mom, she’ll sometimes clarify — “We’re called what again, Josie?”
But despite its confinement to the Harvard bubble, the act of naming has been powerful within these Black communities.
Brown recalls an unfamiliarity within Black spaces during her early days at Harvard. She grew up in Springfield, Ill., a city with a large Generational African American population. But when she arrived at Harvard, she encountered fewer GAA students than she had expected. Occasionally, she felt isolated and misunderstood.
She says, “There is a lot of history in Springfield — our race riots in 1908 caused the NAACP to be formed — but when people look at my hometown, they do not see Black people living in the long, ongoing legacy of racial violence.” Instead, she says, the history of her home is reduced to a racist stereotype: “poor kids from the ghetto whose parents didn’t try hard enough or make good enough decisions.” Sometimes, she observed these same misconceptions circulating among Black diasporic students at Harvard.
Harvard has over fifteen Black organizations, but O’Sullivan, Bos, and Brown noticed that within these communities they valued, GAA voices were sometimes misunderstood.
Toward the end of last semester, in a GroupMe for Black students at Harvard, students started a conversation about social hierarchy within the Black community. Some expressed concerns that GAA students were perceived to occupy the lowest rung, spurring a number of Black ethnic organizations to hold discussions about inclusivity within their own clubs. Students also expressed concerns about the relative scarcity of GAA students on campus. At the end of the week, BSA moderated a larger Zoom call about “Unity and Inclusion Across the Diaspora” to relay the discussions they’d had and find community-wide solutions moving forward.
The demographic disparities that inspired GAASA — a sense that there should be more GAA students at an institution like Harvard — raise a host of questions about representation within elite spaces, access to the resources they provide, and the efficacy of promoting marginalized groups within them. But advocating for GAA students carries fraught undercurrents: the reality that promoting specificity can tread closely to the needless trap of pitting marginalized groups against each other.
The difficulties of advocating for Generational African Americans — from increasing visibility on campus to addressing national, more controversial topics like reparations and affirmative action — show how the perception of a zero-sum game among Black people produces false choices, concealing how Blackness must contend within spaces historically structured by white supremacy.
During pre-orientation before the start of my freshman year, I sat in the Yard on a humid afternoon in a circle of people I had met the day before. Between awkward get-to-know-you games and jittery small talk, it struck me that I had never before been with a group of Black kids who all knew their lineage, who had a place to point to on a world map that was not the United States.
When Adiah J. Price-Tucker ’22, GAASA’s former Political Action Chair, got to Cambridge, she felt a sense of culture shock. “I come from a place that’s heavily Generational African-American and that’s what I was familiar with,” she says. She noticed that other facets of the Black diaspora, such as Nigerian culture and Caribbean culture, appeared at the “forefront of the Black social scene.”
“I really love those cultures — all my blockmates are either first-gen African or first-gen Caribbean, so I’ve definitely learned a lot about all of these cultures and really enjoy them — but GAASA was somewhere that I felt at home,” she says.
Within Black communities at Harvard, there’s an overarching belief that GAA representation is disproportionately low, that “we’re in the minority,” as O’Sullivan explains. Every Black student I interviewed — GAA or not — expressed this as common knowledge.
As a first-year, I once heard from a teaching fellow of the Introduction to African American Studies course that GAA students make up 10 percent of Harvard’s Black population. For the Class of 2022, that would mean roughly 17 students.
Brown used to joke “that there were only a few of us on campus.”
Within Harvard’s GAA population today, O’Sullivan has noticed a seemingly large percentage of biracial students and students who come from socioeconomically-privileged backgrounds. “If we were to count the number of GAA students at Harvard who were descended from enslaved people, came from low income backgrounds, first generation, four grandparents descended from enslaved people, I feel like that number would be so low — like, maybe one person. It’s just so, so, so low,” she says.
The demographics seem to have shifted from what they were decades ago. Professor Cornel R. West ’74 says that, when he was the co-president of the Black Students Association in the early 1970s, “about 95 percent of the Black folk in the association were Black people from the United States who had been enslaved in Jim and Jane Crow.”
He continues, “So you [have] a fascinating expansion of what we mean by Black people, what we mean by African Americans.”
Official statistics, however, remain somewhat outdated and obscure. Harvard does not collect data about the breakdown within racial groups — on official forms, there is no further differentiation after selecting the “Black or African American” option. A 2007 study in the American Journal of Education reported that 41 percent of Black first-year students attending Ivy League schools were immigrants or the children of immigrants; these groups compose 13 percent of the U.S. black population.
“I don’t have the statistics and the University doesn’t release them, but a large percent of the Black students in the College are descendants of recent Africans as opposed to being descended from African-Americans who were enslaved in North America,” says African and African American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
O’Sullivan and Bos are tired of speculation. They have been toying with the idea of collecting data on the demographic breakdown of the Black student population on Harvard’s campus — to “answer the questions we think there’s already an anecdotal feeling about, but quantify it through research,” O’Sullivan explains.
“Are we in the minority?” O’Sullivan asks. “And if so, does this make us feel like we don’t belong on campus? And how does that relate to social class?”
These questions are relevant beyond Harvard. David J. Deming, the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Kennedy School, notes evidence that “non-generational African Americans, or non-descendants of enslaved people, tend to do better than those who are traditionally called Black,” with Nigerian immigrants known for faring especially well in terms of economic mobility. Ellora Derenoncourt, an assistant professor in economics at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email that research finds “upward mobility among immigrant families is higher [than it is] for children of US-born parents and this immigrant advantage effect holds for African Americans as well.”
While Black immigrant families and non-Black immigrant groups have similar trends of intergenerational mobility, Generational African Americans and Native Americans see much lower outcomes than immigrant groups of all backgrounds, including Black. “There is something about the history of a people and the way they were treated by society in the past that carries over to today’s society in ways that aren’t just captured by kind of a snapshot of economic characteristics,” Deming says.
The same need that GAASA’s founders identified — naming specificity within the Black diaspora — is slowly being recognized at a federal level. This year’s census contains a new space to elaborate on ancestral origin under the “Black or African American” check box.“Examples of these groups include, but are not limited to, African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, and Somali. The category also includes groups such as Ghanaian, South African, Barbadian, Kenyan, Liberian, and Bahamian,” explains the 2020 Census website.
But these new boxes capture only a fraction of the nuance that groups like GAASA hope to bring to the definition of Blackness.
O’Sullivan, Bos, and Brown were ready to leave the informal-gathering stage of their new group and become an official organization. Their next step was finding a faculty advisor.
Bos recalls excitedly reaching out to Gates — but when they met with him, she remembers, “the first thing he said to us was kind of how horrible of an idea he thought it was.”
Gates says his initial reaction “reflected a concern that this organization of descendants of people of African descent who were enslaved in North America not be divisive, not be seen as a political statement against other Black student organizations.” He worried that GAASA could foster discord within the larger Black student population.
When I asked West about the possible tensions, he responded prophetically. To him, there’s one fundamental question when it comes to any facet of identity: “What is the relation to specific identity to moral integrity and universal solidarity with those who suffer?”
Absent these two pillars, he warns, “you’re going to fall into very, very ugly traps of clashing, exclusionary attitudes. It can even become xenophobic within the Black community — that’s the last thing we want.”
These concerns — coming from two of the most prominent Black intellectuals in the country — were not unfounded. In 2017, students at Cornell University protested the underrepresentation of Generational African American students in the admissions process at the school. Cornell University’s Black Students United called on Cornell to increase the presence of “underrepresented Black students,” which they defined, in their list of demands, as “[B]lack Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country.”
Ultimately, the incident at Cornell stoked conflict between Generational African Americans and people of African descent with more recent known lineage. “I’m a pan-African person, so my definition of the Black experience has always included the entire Black diaspora. So I hate what happened at Cornell. To me, affirmative action should be applied to Black people across the board,” Gates says.
The demands made at Cornell somewhat resemble the ideology of the American Descendants of Slavery movement. Small, yet controversial, ADOS has been a leader within the advocacy for reparations, but has garnered fierce, valid criticism from the left for promoting nativist rhetoric. The first demand in their New Deal for Black America reads: “Black immigrants should be barred from accessing affirmative action and their set asides intended for ADOS, as should Asians, Latinos, white women, and other ‘minority’ groups.”
ADOS shares a cohort of unlikely supporters, to say the least: Duke University professor William A. Darity Jr., one of the nation’s leading advocates for reparations, has voiced his support for the movement; West has spoken, albeit critically, at their events. But in 2019, alt-right pundit Ann H. Coulter wrote on Twitter, “I like #ADOS, but I think it should be #DOAS – Descendants of American slaves. Not Haitian slaves, not Moroccan slaves, etc.” And Yvette Carnell, one of ADOS’s co-founders, also has ties to “Progressives for Immigration Reform,” which the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as an anti-immigration group.
ADOS’s right-wing tendencies on immigration seem like the specific trap West is cautioning against and the source of Gates’ initial trepidation about GAASA.
In his keynote speech at an ADOS conference, West emphasized to the audience exactly what he emphasized to me: the imperative of connecting universal solidarity to specificity.
“So, yes, it’s true that those who used to be called Negroes or blacks in the Southern part of the United States, who then migrated to other parts of the country, that their experience is not the same as voluntary African [immigrants], not the same as voluntary Caribbeans who come to the United States,” West says. “All of them are subject to racist discrimination, but they still have very different histories.”
GAASA wants little to do with ADOS. Though GAA and ADOS may advocate for the same demographic, O’Sullivan emphasizes that GAASA isn’t affiliated with ADOS because of the group’s history of “incorporating a lot of xenophobia into their movement.” ADOS has left a bad taste in people’s mouths, she tells me, and their advocacy ultimately has done more harm than good. Their activism and research surrounding reparations specifically for GAA people is admirable, she concedes, “but I don’t think anyone’s really arguing with that.”
ADOS could not be reached for comment.
Gates believes a diasporic solidarity is important for innumerable reasons, one of which is exemplified by the ubiquity of racist violence in America. When I spoke to him in May, before the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests against police violence, he recalled the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. “If you’re walking down the street, like this poor man who was murdered in Georgia in February — the man who was shot by two white men — nobody asked him where his grandparents were from, they just saw his black face and killed him,” Gates says. “Racism applies to us across the board.”
Even as aspects of systemic racism harm GAA populations specifically, racism is also unquestionably about perception. Black people suffer and die because of this reality — regardless of ancestry. Recent studies on colorism — discrimination on the basis of skin tone in an intraracial context — reveal that African Americans have an overall 36 percent chance of going to jail at some point in their lifetimes. For dark-skinned African Americans, that rate is 66 percent.
Naming differences like this — differences that get lost in definitions as broad as “Black” — is part of the work that GAASA seeks to do.
When I spoke to Glenn Foster ’22, GAASA’s social chair, he described the club’s aims as twofold: “finding unity within the diaspora while furthering advocacy for Generational African Americans.”
Now, their mission has expanded to include raising awareness about the active role Harvard played in the history of American slavery.
Since December 2019, GAASA has partnered with the Harvard Coalition to Free Renty, supporting Tamara K. Lanier’s lawsuit against the University to release the rights to the daguerreotypes of two enslaved people, Renty and Delia. Her complaint claims that the daguerreotypes — some of the oldest recorded images of enslaved people — show her great-great-great-grandfather Renty.
GAASA hosted a webinar with the Coalition in September titled, “Lanier v. Harvard: The Power of Black Images & Identity,” which featured Lanier, her attorney Benjamin L. Crump, and Grammy Award-winning singer George E. Clinton as panelists. The event was well-received, O’Sullivan says, and inspired a number of students to sign the petition — which now has over 1200 signatures — that advocates on Lanier’s behalf.
“As my oral history dictates, Renty was an African-born man who was extremely proud of his African heritage, who talked to his children about his African heritages, who shared who he was with their children and so on and so forth to where I am today with my children,” Lanier says. Renty was a figure of her bedtime stories as a child, during the joyful moments when her mother “would start to reminisce and talk about our elders and talk about our ancestors.”
Years ago, Lanier’s children would sit by their grandmother and listen to the tales passed down the generations. In her mother’s final days, they would ask her to tell them about Papa Renty. Immediately, she was relaxed and “settled into a comfort zone where she’s in her storytelling mode and her whole demeanor would change.”
But more than just the tales of Renty were passed through oral tradition in Lanier’s family. “I have five generations of Renty,” she explains. “I call them Renty one, two, three, four, five. The Renty in the image is Renty-one. He had a son who was Renty-two. My great-grandfather, who was Renty-three. My mom’s dad, Fred, he had a brother named Renty, and Fred named one of his children Renty. So every generation from that man in the image to my mother has a child named Renty.”
After her mother died, a genealogical research project led Lanier to death records, census records, handwritten inventories — and, eventually, the images of Papa Renty. She discovered the origins of the images: Harvard professor J. Louis R. Agassiz used Renty and Delia as subjects in fallacious, pseudoscientific studies that justified white supremacy through the debunked theory of polygenesis. The images were hidden within the archives of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology until they were unearthed in 1976.
“I remember thinking, what would my mother think, because my mom was one who also just heard these phenomenal stories about this man and never saw him,” she says. “Would she focus on the fact that here’s an image of her [great-great] grandfather or would she be angry about how the images were used? I think my mom would be a little more than angry.”
To Lanier, Harvard’s retention of the images is symbolic violence: an erasure of her family history. “Renty’s invisible, I’m invisible, my mother’s invisible, her grandfather’s invisible, and that extraordinary life and legacy never happened,” she says, “That’s an affront to my family.”
Harvard’s hypocrisy — retaining the images while claiming they adequately acknowledge their historical ties to slavery — reads as a cynical metaphor for the lip service that buries economic and political imperatives to address systemic racism. Renty’s image is not presently used to justify anti-Darwinist theories. Instead, we see him on $40 anthropology books and projected against auditorium walls at academic conferences.
O’Sullivan says the missions of GAASA and Lanier “align almost perfectly.” Lanier says GAASA’s mission “embodies my situation, my purpose, and what I’m trying to accomplish.” GAASA, like Lanier, insists that we recognize the specific history of Black Americans. GAASA, like Lanier, demands ownership of this history and legitimization of the experiences of Generational African Americans. GAASA, like Lanier, carves out and names what is already here.
In my interviews with Gates, West, and the GAASA founders, I sensed a hyper-awareness of the potential danger that comes with foregrounding the particular racism that Generational African Americans face — it feels like a step away from invalidating racism against Black immigrants and their children.
I felt this danger as I began writing this piece.
But that’s exactly what white supremacy wants us to do: to make us feel we have to choose between divisiveness and naming specificity. To make us believe that, to keep the Black community whole, we must remain in the amorphous tension that precedes calling a thing a thing.
Before becoming GAASA’s faculty advisor, Gates wanted to ensure that it would embody a collective mindset, a kind of unity across the diaspora.
Recounting the more than fifteen Black organizations at Harvard, Gates says, “the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned, as long as they’re not in competition with one another, as long as they coordinate their activities, as long as they’re keenly aware of the fact that we are all part of the global Black experience, whether your fourth great-grandfather or fourth great-grandmother was born in what’s now Nigeria or your grandfather or grandmother was born in Nigeria.” He emphasizes, “We are all part of the Black experience.”
Ultimately, his uncertainties strengthened the organization, O’Sullivan and Bos say. After their meeting, the GAASA founders sought to ensure that collaboration with other organizations was central to their mission. They met with leaders of the Black Students Association, Harvard African Students Association, and the Black Community Leaders, to stress how they envisioned GAASA as “a kind of ethnicity club, under the umbrella of BSA and BCL” and not an “offshoot where we were against BSA and BCL,” Bos says.
As the leader of the student organization meant to “represent all facets of Blackness,” BSA president Opeoluwa M. Falako ’22 plans on collaborating with GAASA and publicizing their events. Leaders of other ethnic organizations are similarly looking forward to including GAASA. Katia M. D. Osei ’22, the president of Harvard African Students Association, writes in an email, “one of my goals is to make sure that every member of the Black community at Harvard knows that they’re welcome in HASA while maintaining the support system that HASA provides specifically to both international and first-gen African students.”
D. Toba Olokungbemi ’22 and Venus C. C. Nnadi ’22, the president and vice president of the Nigerian Students Association, say they aim to further their club’s mission of “fostering community through culture,” by continuing collaborations with various Black ethnic organizations, including GAASA. Nnadi adds that “a lot of African American culture is influenced by West African culture, so there’s unique opportunities there to explore similarities within our cultures. And even if it’s not exploring what’s similar within our culture, just sharing our cultures together.”
The white gaze blunts the kaleidoscopic reality of the Black diaspora, both within and outside of Harvard. As West put it, “on the vanilla side of town, most of our white brothers and sisters just see Black in this broad, generic sense.”
It feels like a hopeless choice: Articulating specificity, on the one hand, is necessary to disprove this simplification — but it can also create division.
But hope abounds in the fact that these choices are false.
“I think there should be more of all of us,” O’Sullivan says.
— Staff writer Josie F. Abugov can be reached at email@example.com.