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Just over a year ago, as the news broke that Claudine Gay was to become Harvard’s 30th president, I prayed that from the mountaintop she could see a promised land — one that the arduous journey up the mountain has made difficult for me, for us, to envision. Because when Black women win, the dream for a promised land — for liberation and life — is alive. Or so I thought.
Once upon a time, I was just another Harvard applicant. Just another Harvard admit. Just another Harvard student. I naively thought that I had arrived at the bottom of a mountain whose top would introduce me to legacy, a potential for freedom, and belonging. As I started the climb, my strength was shaky and I wrestled with the fact that the odds of having my own happy (living and human) ending were stacked against me.
Coming to Harvard gave me a hope for the future, one that the world too often robs from Black women — that we can succeed, we can breathe, we can be. But as we fight to the mountaintop for a view of the promised land, what will we see?
As the institution's first Black and second female president, the stakes of scrutiny for Claudine Gay were raised. Her testimony before Congress on antisemitism resulted in political and campus uproar, the integrity of her scholarship has been called into question, all the while she faces looming racialized threats and attacks on her character. Many doubt her dedication to combating hate and to sustaining the pedagogical mission of the university — but the irony is that the bedrock of being Black and woman is to know nothing more intimately than fighting and surviving when the studies of your stories are deemed unimportant, and hate and violence are your everyday reality.
As the years have gone by, the world and the University have shown me that I am not just another Harvard student. And no, it’s not because I am determined, nor is it because I am exceptional, but because I am Black and I am a woman.
Throughout my ascent, I have been met with the sharpness of framing my own painful resignations as powerful acts of resistance, the slippage every time I lose a scholarly ancestor, and the stream of blood, sweat, and tears poured into a rebirth of a cultural rhythm. Not to mention simultaneously trying to keep my balance as the world rocked when Covid-19 took our loved ones at disproportionate rates, when Black women died and the world didn’t cry, and when conflicts at home and abroad challenged our senses of safety and community.
But the way up the mountain almost seemed worth it as I watched Claudine Gay ascend to the highest Harvard chair of all last year. And for a moment, I — and my Black sisters on Harvard’s campus and beyond — rejoiced. We went to tell it on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere.
We knew that the higher (now former) President Gay went, the colder the world would be. That’s often how it goes for Black women. She would continue to face, on a bigger and more public scale, the frigidity of a racist, sexist, imperialist, inequitable world. So, I asked for nuanced considerations of the responsibilities and legacies she carried. I called for love, grace, and protection on her behalf. I wanted more for her, as I wanted for the rest of the world. But for a second I forgot that the multilayered texture of the Black woman’s life meant that even when we are crippled by the cold, we face a scorching heat — a fire from within and around that requires us to move seamlessly through rocky terrain.
Just over one year after that prayerful rejoicement, as Claudine resigns from her chair, I am confronted with the fact that most of the world did not pray alongside us all those months ago. Because these places, and those high up spaces, are simply not made for Black women to win.
Today is not just about a Harvard president and the position’s shortest historical tenure. It is not about disagreements over geopolitical correctness nor honor in scholarship. The resignation of Claudine Gay is a heart-wrenching display that at the mountaintop for the Black woman, there is no promised land. No liberation, no forgiveness, no love, no protection. As if surviving the cruel cold misogynoir of the world while simultaneously being burned by the heat emanating through the intensified pressure Black women constantly face isn’t enough to conquer; the higher up she goes the thinner the altitude gets.
At the mountaintop, the world robs the Black woman of her breath such that the only option is to let the suffocation kill her or to let it kill her dreams. And as she falls from the peak, the spirits and dreams of success, liberation, progress, and livelihood of the Black women she carries with her — across generations and diasporas — fall too.
Today, I do not rejoice at Claudine Gay’s resignation. Instead, I fall to my knees at our collective resignation in the Black woman’s fight to climb to a mountaintop from which we might truly be able to see a promised land.
Kyla N. Golding ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History of Science and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality concentrator in Adams House.
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