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In true Haitian American fashion, the first thing I did when I heard the news about Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay being selected to be the next president of Harvard University was forward the announcement to every one of my extended family members on WhatsApp.
As I spread the news to my loved ones, the Haitian community across the diaspora joined together in celebration of one of our own. Within hours, Le Nouvelliste d’Haiti, the oldest Haitian daily newspaper, produced an article highlighting Dean Gay’s appointment and her parents’ Haitian roots; the Haitian Ladies Network applauded her leadership on their widely followed Facebook page, broadcasting her success to their thousands of members.
While I read the countless articles featuring Dean Gay’s appointment, each time my eyes graze the page to find the line continuously used to describe Gay that continues to bring tears to my eyes: “A child of Haitian immigrants.”
For the first time, the next president of Harvard University does not descend from generations of whiteness, but from the revolutionaries of Haiti who successfully won their freedom and stood as the largest challenge to the global colonial order. The next president of Harvard University is the child of a rich culture molded by resistance but deemed inferior by a world not yet ready for its power, the child of the same nation that once ousted its colonizers only to be saddled by some $21 billion in so-called ‘reparations’ for the disgraced enslavers. The next president of Harvard University is a child of Haitian migrants who, while cut from the tree of Haiti, have sprung roots numerous and deep in the United States.
The next president of Harvard University is a child of Haitian immigrants, and I hope she never lets us forget it.
When I received my acceptance to Harvard, my mother knew very little about the institution. She pronounced words like Harvard and Canaday with a slight Kreyol accent, sweetening them to ‘Hah-varde’ and ‘Ca-nah-day,’ lacing their names with Haitian phonemes. But there was one name in all the welcome emails that seemed to roll perfectly, seamlessly off her tongue: Claudine.
Marie, it seemed, knew Claudine, even if the two had never met, perhaps more so than if they ever had. My mother began to speak of her as though she was a distant cousin, one making our community proud through her leadership. Dean Gay reflects a growing shift in the representations of Haitian people — an overcoming of the historical project, by institutions and governments alike, to depict Haitians as inferior.
Despite being home to the third-largest Haitian community in the United States, Boston’s streets reflect very little of Haiti’s influence. Over the years, the city has tried to render its largest Black ethnic group invisbile, subjecting them both to the racial discrimination experienced by Black Americans as well as to the special brand of cruelty reserved for Caribbean immigrants. The descendants of the world’s most succesful slave revolt were cast to the shadows. Gay’s appointment to Harvard’s top post affirms that we belong in the light.
Haitian American children are familiar with the holy trinity of professions — doctor, lawyer, engineer. The three paths that lead to embodied success, merit, financial stability even. As a History and Literature concentrator, I still get confused stares when I tell my family what I study, when I reveal that my working hours are devoted not to math or biology, but to uncovering the rich history of people whose stories have been silenced. I’m almost always asked, “Well what do you want to do with that after college?”
Now, I have an answer.
“One day, I want to be president of university, tankou ti dam sa ki te nan Harvard, Claudine Gay.”
One day, I want to be president of university, like that woman who was at Harvard, Claudine gay.
Marissa J. Joseph ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Kirkland House.
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