A group of black students at Harvard are fed up with the institutional racism they say they have experienced, and are speaking out against it through a commanding photography project on Tumblr.
“Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned,” the website says. “This project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here.”
The Tumblr is part of a larger campus campaign that all started with a play written by sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, pictured above.
Matsuda-Lawrence and other members of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, Harvard’s oldest existing black organization, came up with the idea last year around spring break. She conducted 40 interviews with black students on campus for an independent study last semester; those interviews are the basis of the play, called I, Too, Am Harvard, which will premiere March 7.
She emphasized to BuzzFeed that “I, Too, Am Harvard” is a collective black community project that doesn’t yet reflect that experience of all students of color.
“We want to build a larger movement for students of color in general, but this play is for Harvard’s Black Arts Festival,” Matsuda-Lawrence said. “The project is coming out of the black community on campus.”
As part of the campaign, Harvard sophomore Carol Powell, a fellow Kuumba member, photographed 63 black students holding boards with micro-aggressions and racist remarks they have heard on campus. Some chose to write messages to their peers.
Speaking about her own portrait from the photo campaign, Matsuda-Lawrence told BuzzFeed that while walking through Harvard Yard last Friday night with black friends, they were approached by two white males who appeared to be drunk.
“One of them came right up in my face and yelled, ‘CAN YOU READ?’” she said. “This confrontation is just one of many instances in which black intelligence is questioned on this campus.”
Since the Tumblr launched Saturday night, it has received more than 19,000 page views, and the “I, Too, Am Harvard” team has been contacted by students of color on other campuses, including students from the University of Pennsylvania, who want to launch their own campaign.
“We’re part of a nationwide movement of black student activism,” Matsuda-Lawrence said. “We haven’t started this, but we’re hoping we can add to the movement and speak up against racism on college campuses.”
The campaign was created in response to an article written by a white student and printed in the Harvard Crimson in November 2012 called “Affirmative Dissatisfaction,” which instigated debates about Harvard’s affirmative action policy.
“I felt, and other students felt, that our presence and identity as black students was being de-valued. At the time I was a freshman. We’d just shown up on campus, and we felt like people were saying I wasn’t smart enough to be here,” Matsuda-Lawrence said. “Everybody was talking about it on campus and it created a lot of racial tension.”
This is our way of speaking back and saying we belong here. We’re claiming this campus as our own.”
In one interview, a student told Matsuda-Lawrence how hurt she was by the article:
“I read the article, and when she was saying, ‘giving black people entrance into schools like Harvard was the same as teaching a blind man to be a pilot’ — I read that, and I just cried. My heart ached, you know, I was so excited to be in this place, and they didn’t want me here.”
“There is a feeling a lot of black students share, which is that even though you got a letter of acceptance, you’re never fully accepted on this campus,” Matsuda-Lawrence said.
She added that throughout her 40 interviews, she hardly ever mentioned the affirmative action article, yet almost every person brought it up. “That’s the effect it had on our campus,” she said.
“The administration was silent on the issue,” Matsuda-Lawrence said. “They did not come to the aid of students of color on campus, and the voices of black students were not heard in the affirmative action debate.”
In another interview, a woman expressed how hard it was for her to feel comfortable in the classroom:
“I’m doing electrical engineering. And electrical engineering is really hard. Like that’s all I can say about it. It’s really hard. But I just don’t want to ask white people for help. Specifically, like if he’s white and male… Because I can’t have him thinking that I’m this dumb black girl — that I don’t deserve to be here.”
The play is part of the school’s 16th Annual Dr. Walter J. Leonard Black Arts Festival, sponsored by the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, as well as a number of other institutional organizations.
The “I, Too, Am Harvard” team has invited a number of professors and administrators to the performance, and hopes they will help work to affect change on campus.
“This project has helped us realize that we’re not alone,” Matsuda-Lawrence said.
“We want to build a movement that can be translated into real institutional change so that black students feel that we belong. The play isn’t an end, it’s a beginning.”
Matsuda-Lawrence said the goal of the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign is for the Harvard administrators to take note of the movement and address it directly.
“Our biggest demand would be for the president and administration to issue a public statement in response to the affirmation action article to support students of color, and say why they value diversity on campus.”
Harvard did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed’s request for comment.