Yes, I’ve Got the Receipts: A Portrait of a Professor as a College Student Activist

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The subject of my doctoral thesis, Unmasking the Boston Brahmin: Race and Liberalism in the Long Struggle for Reform at Harvard and Radcliffe, 1945-1990, was completely unknown to me when I arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate in 1994. During my freshmen year, I wore a uniform of a multicolored Rasta cap, oversized dark denim vintage overalls, and Birkenstock sandals that I often combined with thick socks, which conveyed my personal aesthetic and politics at the time. I was, unironically, a neo-soul flower child and proud hippie from Oakland, California. The radical historical memory of the city’s connection to black power and the Black Panthers shaped my early ideological beliefs and student politics.

During my senior year in high school, I had begun to devour my parents’ personal library collection from Howard University: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folks, and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks were among some of the titles I read but did not understand fully. Due to my interest in radical politics, I attended Harvard and studied with Cornell West, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Anthony Appiah. I was interested in the Henry Louis Gates and the dream team project of black studies. The department had a serious swagger to match its academic offerings, which fostered my college academic growth. As a government concentrator, Martin Kilson was my senior honors thesis advisor. This cadre of Harvard black professors would shape and sharpen my early thinking and work in the field.

Although I did not know the pre-Gates history of blacks at Harvard, I inherited a college academic and social life that was the result of long years of protests by black students and academics as well as their allies in the student and administration ranks. I joined the Black Students Association (BSA) my freshmen year, attended hip-hop or reggae parties, sat at the black dining table for most meals, and lived in the Radcliffe Quad where the highest concentration of black students resided. As director of the Academy Homes afterschool program in Roxbury for three years, I would recruit a sizeable number of volunteers from the crowd of people who were leaving the annual BSA back to school party each September.

By my senior year, I was the BSA historian. We published a quarterly BSA Newsletter that detailed the contemporary political debates, student artistic and cultural endeavors, and important happenings in the larger black community. The BSA led the campus protest of the 1994 controversial publication of The Bell Curve by two Harvard professors, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. The members of the BSA took to the steps of Widener Library in order to stage a daylong protest in the fall. Our concerns were ardent and presentist. We wanted to raise our voices in protest against a scholarly work that was an example of scientific racism because it purported to show the genetic basis for inferior levels of black intelligence. Along with my classmates, I was unaware of the long struggle, controversies, and upheaval that took place in that exact spot in the middle of campus.

My research into this history started with the 1960s and eventually expanded to an investigation of the “long movement” time period that looks seriously at the rewards and emotional costs of being black at the high-powered university. One of my first discoveries was the 1969 Harvard and Radcliffe Yearbook and the passage by Charles Hamilton who wrote poignantly about race:

Harvard is the world that supposedly gives to black students a new set of garments—a new and supposedly more important identity as a Harvard man. The garment—the Harvard identity—does not change the facts of color and race.[1]

To reconcile race and Harvard is one that most viscerally felt by young people during this heightened moment in their social and emotional development. During my time on campus, I often heard black administrators repeat the statement, “Harvard has ruined more good men than wine.” The saying is part of university lore, which alludes to a tragic consequence of a long-term employment at Harvard. I always found that it was is a curious saying to repeat because the speakers had respected and even spectacular careers.

I now understand it is a cautionary saying that relates their experience as privileged African American faculty or administrators in the Ivy League who had to contend with the benefits of race and downsides of racism in the academy. For most of the black student activists, however, their time at Harvard did not take the path toward utter ruination. Black students and adults avoided the potential pitfalls and found a way forward by fighting in the long struggle in order to change educational policy at Harvard for future generations. As a professor of education, it is a lesson that I hope to pass on to the current generation of students that I teach.

 

[1] Charles J. Hamilton, Jr., AAAAS of Harvard and Radcliffe, Records of the Association of African and Afro-American Students at Harvard and Radcliffe, HUD 3125.2000, Box 2, Articles Black Students in the Harvard Yearbook 1969, Harvard University Archives.

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