On sunny days in Harvard Yard, when the light of autumn leaves pop orange, maroon, vibrant yellow, and a fading green, and the tower on Memorial Church reflects bright white back to me, I picture myself in an admissions brochure. Touting an aggressively crimson sweater, I walk slightly stiffly. Around me are piles of dead leaves fallen from shedding male oaks. Posing, I pick up a batch and launch it into the air above me. As the rotting leaves fall around me, I laugh with my chest and smile a little too wide and tilt my head slightly, angling myself for some camera or the people who watch me — a brown face in a sea of white ones.
If all the world’s a stage, Harvard is one too. On my first day here, among other things, I found in my freshman welcome packet some metaphorical script, statements on a “commitment to diversity and inclusion” in pamphlets with people of various shades. Highlighted were the lines I was expected to read out to the world: “Students of color contribute so much to this community …”, “Bridging divides across experiences is vital...”, “There is so much to learn from diversity….” Overwhelmed and confused by its contents and the bustling energy of freshman move-in, I skimmed my lines quickly and threw the script haphazardly onto my dorm room desk, where it would soon get lost amongst syllabi, textbooks, flyers, and the other things I imagined would open new worlds for me.
Within two hours, in conversation with a white entryway-mate who was curious about my thoughts on DuBois’s “Souls of Black Folk,” I heard, in my voice, lines from that fated script. I had barely cracked open our assigned summer reading, let alone developed a cohesive thought on theories of racial uplift, and yet here I was, “speaking as a woman of color….”
The trend continued. I checked privilege, I pushed back, I diversified rooms, and soon into the school year, my vocabulary started and ended on the pages of that script. I fell quickly into the role of Indignant Student Activist, one which I had been assigned by nature of my various identities and the color of my skin, and my existence became, in James Baldwin’s words, one of “bitter railing.”
On cloudy days, the illusion fades. The Yard looks more dull now and mud coats the leaves as they fall to the ground. The looming threat of a challenge to Harvard’s admissions practices has sent the people who set this stage into a whirling panic. I watch silently as administrators scramble to protect the sanctity of “diversity,” and the emails that appear in my inbox from the highest offices of this institution sound almost like a competition of who can scream “WE NEED PEOPLE OF COLOR” the loudest. Surveying the chaos that has unfolded, I chuckle and can’t help but wonder what all of this is for. Why are these directors so determined to cast us? What are the meanings of the roles that they want us to fill? And why have we clung to them?
I spent two years at Harvard reading the lines they’d written for me. For two years, my existence in this institution served as a “necessary” and “healthy” challenge. During various meetings with students and College staff, I was asked to push this institution forward, but only as far as their script would allow. White folks asked me constantly to help them empathize with the struggles of students of color: “Show me why I should care! Teach me how to be human!”
I, the Indignant Student Activist, was, as Baldwin writes, as “a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic,” giving white people a space to reflect on the horrid realities of the consequences of their actions and inactions. Interacting with me was a transformative experience transactionalized, and I, in this space, internalized the dehumanization others placed on me, denying my own complexity, my own humanity.
I tried for some time to find my fulfillment in the acts of resisting, but as Baldwin taught me in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” true liberation cannot come from the formation of an identity in opposition to the systems and structures that limit me. “We take our shape, it is true, within and against that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth; and yet it is precisely through our dependence on this reality that we are most endlessly betrayed.”
In adhering to my script, I lived in half-truths in order to make my striving for half-victories more efficient; but beneath the words that are given to me lies my frightening truth, which I have subjected to silence because it cannot not fit into their narrative of protest.
These gates have trapped me in their construction. In these confines, I’ve muffled the difficult questions that bring me closer to my complicated human nature: What of my fragile blackness? And my shameful lack of rhythm? And my capacity, or lack thereof, to love? And my experience of faith? And loneliness? And joy?
If our defense of diversity ultimately legitimizes the sentimentalities around race of this stage that we inhabit, I’ll have no part in it. I want to imagine a world beyond this one, where the truths in my body dance effortlessly and I laugh lightly and I speak with integrity to my complexities and, with ease, love the whole of myself — a world in which I am liberated. For “our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it.”
Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.