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Which Side Are You On?

A People’s History of Harvard

By Prince A. Williams, Crimson Opinion Writer
Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “A People’s History of Harvard,” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

The Harvard Black Students Association recently hosted its annual Black Legacy Ball. The seventh of its kind, the event is intended to celebrate Black history and culture and the achievements of Black people across the community.

As Black folks celebrated the occasion, I’ve been thinking a lot about the legacies we leave behind.

For some, legacy embodies the accumulation of wealth and accolades. For others, it’s passing down grandma’s ring or a dusty photo album — each holding within them a narrative waiting to be unraveled.

As students at Harvard, our individual legacies inevitably intertwine with the legacy of this institution. Within these hallowed halls, we are met with the choice to shape our destinies by moving in one direction or the other.

However, among many students consumed by anxious ambition and the pursuit of “excellence,” we must be extremely cautious about the lasting impact we want to have on the world.

The legacies we pursue and ultimately leave behind serve as a testament to our values, aspirations, and the very essence of our character.

Legacy serves as a reflection of what we truly prioritize in life. It is a historical roadmap for those who come after us to witness what exactly we thought was important. Every decision made, every relationship forged, and every endeavor undertaken has significance — a testament to our ethos and the values we hold dear.

In thinking about building a legacy, we are invariably confronted with two divergent paths at Harvard: One is characterized by the relentless pursuit of individual achievement and the other is grounded in the spirit of the community.

The former echoes the sentiment encapsulated in the Wu-Tang proverb, “cash rules everything around me.” A path poisoned by self-seeking materialism at the expense of collective well-being. In this case, legacy is passing down the money, property, and social status collected over someone’s life.

The latter finds its roots in the nurturing embrace of those around them. A legacy immersed in the principles of love, empathy, and interconnectedness. It is a philosophy exemplified by the African concept of ubuntu, “I am because we are.” No ethos that regards oneself as produced by and bound up with friends, family, neighbors, and ancestors can understand an individual as “self-made.”

A legacy built on community envisions the health of the individual as directly coupled with the health of the whole. “If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.” These words, from the poem “In Lak’ech” (“you are my other me,” in Mayan) by Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, sing the songs of collective liberation.

Legacy is deeply connected to the tradition we choose to embrace. The Black freedom tradition and the legacy of the ancestors I want to embody fills me with immense pride. It comes from the spirit of folks like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Ella Baker, Fred Hampton, and countless others who stood with their community in the face of oppression.

Are the trajectories of our legacy at Harvard this Black and white? Of course not. No one comes out of Harvard either Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Rogers. However, it is worth interrogating the foundations on which we choose to build our lives.

Ultimately, our legacy is what people will remember us for. It is the conclusions that they will make from the history we create right here on earth. Where our priorities take us now has a significant effect on where our legacies will fall.

Behind the beautiful lights and rhythmic beats of Black Legacy Ball raises a deeply serious question: Which side are you on?

Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “A People’s History of Harvard” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

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