I, too, was Harvard — a girl from a working/middle-class family in Baltimore, educated in public schools, who chose to wear all black and cut my hair into a blue fauxhawk freshman year. That was 1986, a time when I was both “read” racially, as a text by students and teachers, and “wrote” my own racial code.
When one of my freshman roommates showed up, her parents found out I was black. They asked her to move and tried to get the admissions office to move her. To that roommate’s great credit, both she and the office told them to take a hike.
Nearly three decades later, a group of Harvard students is bringing ongoing assumptions about blackness to the fore, prompting me to reflect on what may and may not have changed in the intervening years.
The play/video project #ITooAmHarvard was launched by Kimiko M. Matsuda-Lawrence who recounts in the viral video, “I am black Japanese, I’m Blasian, but I am black. Because no one’s ever going to look at me and say, ‘Look at that Asian girl.’ So especially with last year, as soon as we show up on campus, the affirmative action article comes out. People are telling us you don’t belong here, you don’t deserve to be here. At that point, I couldn’t hide in my Asian-ness and pretend that I wasn’t black … I realized the implications of what that means being here on this campus.”
And indeed, one of the comments on a page of the Harvard Crimson linking to the video asks, “How many of these people took a spot from more qualified individuals simply because of race-based Affirmative Action? This is the question which we should be bringing to light – not this nonsense. [James]”
I loved and identified in many ways with the students in the video, who spoke about things like people whipping their head around in seminar to see what they’d say if race or the N-word came up in class. But I believe my experiences were different, and not just because of my own many quirks.
I arrived on campus during the Gothy 80s and pushed a style that I’d begun to adopt late in high school. I identified as an artsy misfit, and I found my tribe — first among freshman friends, but particularly in Adams House, where I stayed sophomore through senior year. (Most undergraduates are placed in one of 12 residential houses where they spend their final three years.)
I did improv and performance art; swam naked with the other students skinny-dipping in our private pool (now closed and turned into a theater); saw The Lemonheads, Bullet Lavolta and Yo La Tengo play a great, and sadly untaped, show in our dining hall; and, took the prize, with my roommates, of “the golden codpiece” for winning the women’s division of the annual drag ball. (We were The Village People. I was the black guy.)
Our rooming group senior year was white, Puerto Rican, Asian American and black. We called ourselves the U.N. And we reveled in a culture that was diverse, LGBT and women-friendly. And especially FUN-friendly.
Thomas Lauderdale, now the heart of the bestselling band Pink Martini, would put on a dress and play the grand piano at his “Breakfast at Tiffanys” soirées. The house master, Robert J. Kiely, was a strong but magical presence. At the time the head of the English department, he invited me to an intimate dinner with Toni Morrison.
Harvard was not perfect, at all — I think it was not a great teaching school for undergrads in those years and is better now on that score — but the housing system allowed us to create our own micro-cultures, and Adams House was akin to the East Village circa 1996. Now the housing system is randomized, and I wonder if racial drama is more evenly spread across the campus.
These were not entirely easy years for me. I was a bulimic, as well as being type A. At the time, the campus mental health services didn’t offer many concrete suggestions. I wish I had loved myself differently in those years, with a passionate self-acceptance that I seemingly had from the outside. I wish that for Harvard’s black students today — a Lupita-Nyong’o-talking-black-skin style love, if you get what I mean. After teaching at Harvard in the spring of 2012 as a fellow at the Institute of Politics, I identified with the young men and women finding themselves, and wish all of them self- and agape-love, which transforms a school into a beloved community.
The most disheartening and embittering moment I had at Harvard came not directly through race, but through the back door of class and credibility, to which race is often linked. In my senior year of high school, a Baltimore business association granted me a $500 per year, four-year scholarship. It was one of many I cobbled together to supplement other financial aid. At the posh ceremony, I remember no black members among the white faces. If I remembered correctly, there was some formula by which Harvard, at the time, credited these smaller gifts in your financial aid.
But then, the business association called me freshman year and said that their financial mismanagement of the funds meant they could not extend the fellowship for the next three years. And when I went to the financial aid office, expecting them to adjust the parental/student load, they flat out refused. In effect, I was punished by Harvard for seeking outside funds. I remember walking from the financial aid office with tears streaming down my face, wondering if my race — even if not the deciding factor — played a role in how coldly the financial aid officer denied my documented pleas.
Five-hundred dollars then was the equivalent of a thousand dollars today. For some students, that was pocket change. For my mother, who got no child support from my father and drove a station wagon gifted us by my uncle, that was money she needed to raise my sister. Mom and I made adjustments between us to pay the bills, and while I believe Harvard’s financial aid is exponentially better for working-class, poor and middle-class students, I will never forget. At New York University, where I teach today, when I see students in financial distress, I do all I can to help them seek university help.
But that incident — or the one in which a drunk person in a car called me a “nigger” — or my own racial faux-pas, like using the slur “Nuh-goo-yen,” which I had picked up from an Asian Amerian friend, to refer to Asian immigrants (and a white friend told me to stop, so there!) — did not stop me from experiencing an extraordinary and fierce set of college years. I still count so many of my fellow students as my friends, not in small ways but deeply.
And when it came to race, even in Adams House, we had separations. Many of the black students sat on one side of the salad bar. Many of those students had already been through their own racial wars at private schools, or mostly-white towns, or being bused to white schools. I had grown up with my intellectual-political-working/middle class Baltimore black family and gone to mostly black schools. I wanted to experiment with selfhood, and sometimes I got a little side-eye from my own brothers and sisters, but sometimes I gave it back. I could be less at ease with the Jack and Jill Negroes than the Social Register debutantes, because it seemed like the wealthier black folks and I should be more alike, but class often made our lives profoundly different.
Earlier, in my childhood, race and class in Baltimore were so intertwined as to be inextricable. Later, as a young graduate and impassioned journalist, race issues in the newsroom trumped all. But during my years at Harvard, class trumped gender, trumped race — but friendship and artistry trumped them all.
Blackness — no one size fits all. Never has, never will. I now circulate for business and pleasure in a mix of all- or mostly-black groups, as well as truly multiracial ones, and a few where I am the only African American.
So cheers to these young students, and may they remember, despite racism, they still are the builders of their own dream palaces. Or to quote Lupita Nyong’o, “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”
Farai Chideya is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism. She formerly hosted NPR’s “News and Notes” and has written four books. Chideya blogs at farai.com.