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Black alumni discussed their experiences as Harvard students and their thoughts on the College’s past actions during an event entitled “Beyond ‘Fair Harvard’: Perspectives from Black Alumni” on Tuesday.
The Harvard Radcliffe Institute hosted the discussion as part of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. In April 2022, the committee released a report detailing the College’s history of slavery and discrimination, and its enduring effects.
Harvard Law School professor Randall L. Kennedy, who moderated the event, opened by asking the panelists: “Was Harvard worth it to you?”
Beth Chandler ’88, president and CEO of nonprofit YW Boston, said the different aspects of her identity led to “distinct challenges” while at Harvard.
“Being Black, being a woman, being gay, being sort of mid to lower class — my family, we never missed a meal, but we certainly didn’t have a lot of money,” Chandler said.
Chandler said the support she received from the Harvard basketball team and the Black Student Union made the experience “worth it,” despite these challenges.
“That was a community where I truly felt like I could be me,” she said.
Playwright Antoinette C. Nwandu ’02 said the people were “one of the best resources out of Harvard,” though she did not necessarily feel the experience was worth it.
“As far as my mental health and my self-care journey, Harvard was not particularly worth it. The struggle was real,” Nwandu said. “Nobody in my family really expected me to go to college or really cared whether I went to college one way or another.”
“This is definitely a journey that I’ve been on alone,” she added.
The alumni also spoke of common experiences shared by Black students at Harvard, past and present.
Baratunde R. Thurston ’99, a writer, activist, and comedian, said he and his Black peers were made to feel like they did not belong and “were only there because of affirmative action.”
“Now this Ivy League-dominated Supreme Court is likely to make its way to undoing that,” Thurston said. “So there’s similarities and sort of overlaps or at least shared coordinates of our experience.”
Thurston said Black students should recognize their rightful place at Harvard.
“So many of these systems, whether it’s company diversity efforts, military, higher education, but especially companies in higher education, they want us to feel like they’ve got power, and they just get to trickle it out to us,” Thurston said. “What’s really happening is they’re really lucky that we want to be a part of their club. We make their club cool.”
Chandler advised students to create a strong support system.
“Find the people who will support you, who believe in you, who know you, and who you don’t have to prove yourself to,” she said. “If we don’t believe in us, who will?”
The alumni said they expect more from the University regarding sensitive issues including its connections with slavery and affirmative action.
“They need to accuse these Supreme Court people openly of being the foul and reactionary and scheming and paid-off legalist hucksters that we have on that court,” journalist John N. Woodford ’63 said.
“I think Harvard can and should be far more bold in the action that it takes,” Chandler added.
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