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Black's Guide To Harvard

February 1, 2003

Black Guide to Harvard Covers History and Tips


CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 31 — A year ago, two African-American Harvard undergraduates, Marques J. Redd and Kiratiana Freelon, sat down in the commons room at Adams House and brainstormed over this question: "What does every black student at Harvard College need to know?"

A result of that session is the first encyclopedic black guide to life at Harvard, a 322-page book with a history of blacks at the college, from the admission of the first black student in 1865 to the tumultuous departure of Cornel West last year from the Afro-American studies department, and lots of practical advice and some caustic commentary.

Today, Mr. Redd and Ms. Freelon write, black students at Harvard "are not unduly circumscribed by race." They regularly join formerly all-white organizations like the Hasty Pudding Club, finals clubs, The Harvard Crimson and the Glee Club. Black students have been class marshals and president of the undergraduate council, according to the guide.

Yet, as the guide also documents, it is still not easy being a black student at Harvard, an institution that has long been a training ground for the white establishment.

"We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate and Timmy before they go out to take over the world," Ms. Freelon and Mr. Redd write. "We are not here to serve as the mark for a tally in any quota or to serve the ruling elite in any way."

The book includes a list of black faculty members (a disappointingly short list, the book notes), as well as a guide to beauty salons (Charlene's in the Roxbury neighborhood is highly recommended, along with two undergraduates who do cornrows and braids at steep discounts), barbershops (Nu Image in Cambridge is where the professors of Afro-American studies go) and restaurants (Chef Lee's Famous Soul Food in Dorchester serves up excellent fried catfish along with pride in black culture).
The book, 1,000 copies of which arrived on the campus today from the printer in Chicago, is sometimes serious. It opens with a long dedication to W. E. B. DuBois, the first black to earn a doctorate at Harvard, and calls for black students to honor his memory by becoming more involved in the black community.

The book is also funny and irreverent. It has lists of the 10 stupidest things said to black men at Harvard ("You're not black, you know how to act") and to black women ("How do you deal with the intersectionality of race and gender, being doubly oppressed as black and female?").

The authors riff on the way relatives and friends of black freshmen tend to confuse Harvard with Howard University:

Grandfather: "So where are you going to college next year, son?"

Grandson: "I'm going to Harvard, pops."

Grandfather: "Oh, I'm so proud that my grandson is going to Howard."

Grandson: "No, granddaddy. I said Hah-vahd."

Grandfather: "Yeah, that one up in D.C., right, with all the smart black folks."

Mr. Redd, a junior, was so busy preparing for the Black Students Association dinner on Saturday, at which the book will be unveiled, that he hardly had time to savor his creation. Although the association compiled the book with financial support from the Harvard Foundation, black alumni and corporations, Mr. Redd did most of the writing and editing. The book, he said, took over his life.

"I've just given my whole self to this project," he said. "This is everything I've wanted to say to every black person on campus."

Ms. Freelon, who graduated last year and is traveling in Brazil, was his co-executive editor. She was relentless, Mr. Redd said.

"There were times we would be up all night working on it," he recalled. "I'd say: 'Tiana, it's 2 a.m. I've got to get home.' "

Mr. Redd said he spent hours combing through the Harvard archives, as well as "Blacks at Harvard" (New York University Press, 1993), edited by Werner Sollers, Caldwell Titcomb and Thomas A. Underwood.

Mr. Redd said his guide was in part intended as a way to strengthen ties among black students at Harvard. About 8 percent of the 6,650 undergraduates at the college are black.

By the late 1990's, according to the guide, many black and Hispanic students lived in the Radcliffe Quadrangle, in the Pforzheimer House. But starting with the class of 1999, the college, wanting to diversify student housing — while black and Hispanic students may have gravitated toward the quadrangle, athletes, actors or writers dominated other houses — began a system of randomly assigning students to the residence houses. A result, Mr. Redd said, was a weakening of the black community on the campus.

In the introduction to the book, Mr. Redd and Ms. Freelon recall that when DuBois was here in the late 19th century, he was one of 25 blacks at the university. With campus housing reserved for whites, the man who went on to become the country's leading black intellectual went to live with a black resident of Cambridge.

Ms. Freelon and Mr. Redd write that black students today often have to contend with others who doubt their qualifications. In response, the authors note that David Evans, a senior admissions officer who has been at Harvard for more than 30 years, has often said that the weakest student in any Harvard class has never been a student of color. Mr. Evans is one of four black men at Harvard whom the guide profiles and urges students to get to know.

"By virtue of our setting, smart black men are plentiful, but wise black men are difficult to find," the start of Mr. Evans's profile reads. "Where is that black man who is like your grandfather and who always wants to drop a piece of wisdom and knowledge in your head?"

Mr. Evans is that man, the guide says.

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