Skip to main content

Being Black at Harvard


It turns out that I am the first Black professor to attain tenure at Harvard in the physical sciences. When I go to events for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), I occasionally see other Black people, but they are few and they are not generally in the sciences (I was at a dinner table next to Jamaica Kincaid's recently!). To be Black at Harvard is to be on an island. To be Black at Harvard is to stand out. Being Black at Harvard means always being aware of your skin color. This awareness isn't always bad, necessarily. But my race is ever present in my mind, and that takes a cognitive toll, which has been documented extensively.

Since arriving in Cambridge, MA, I have been reading a great deal about the history of my people, and about the institutions in which we live and operate (inspired in large part by the book recommendations of Ta-Nehisi Coates). Not surprisingly, these institutions fail us more than they help. But at the same time, I've developed a deep and abiding pride in who I am, my personal history and my ancestry. I'm proud of the accomplishments of those who endured unthinkable treatment, ranging from slavery, to state-sanctioned terrorism, to institutionalized racism, to today's undercover biases and slights. To be Black is to be a survivor, and I'm proud of the path that was blazed for me to be what I am today: A Black Harvard Professor. 

I'm proud that today's Harvard values the diversity that I bring. Yes, I was hired in part because I'm Black, and Harvard needs what my unique racial makeup brings with it: namely, excellence. I bring viewpoints that are out of the norm, yet well aligned with the educational needs of an ever more diverse student body. I bring a formidable publication record, unique teaching methods and innovative approaches to all that I do. And I'm determined to see diversification accelerated here. Soon. There's much work to do, but I feel I'm in the right place to do it.

I, too, am Harvard
While I've found comfort and encouragement in my new position here at Harvard, it's important to keep in mind that my younger brothers and sisters don't necessarily get to enjoy the same benefits, and yes privileges, that my station in life has bestowed on me. This was hammered home for me by the video below. These are the voices of Harvard's Black students, but really these are the voices of Black people in 2014 America. Please, listen closely.


Comments

Isaac Harper said…
We'll said John! And congrats on your tenure.

Popular posts from this blog

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:


It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…