Keeping It Real At Harvard

First Person

April 03, 2005|By Brandon Terry

I first came to Harvard for Prospective Students' Weekend in April of 2001. My mother's erroneous weather forecast had me dressed for a cold Massachusetts weekend, but as I emerged from the subway, I was hit with the discomfort of wearing a giant winter coat in Cambridge's unseasonably warm, 70-degree weather. Carrying luggage and sweating profusely, I struggled onto Harvard Yard, a grass pasture surrounded by buildings that bear the names of the richest, whitest and deadest men in history. My mind-set could have only been described as utter confusion.

On my right, a group of scruffy students from the Progressive Student Labor Movement had occupied the president's office to protest Harvard employees' wages. To my left was a Native American festival, with dancing participants dressed in tribal regalia. In front of me, a sea of Asian tourists snapped photographs. Clearly, the diversity brochure was not a deceptive marketing ploy.

I needed to get to the admissions office, but I had no idea where to go. Thankfully, I thought, a group of black kids were headed toward me. I approached them, and asked if they knew where I could find Byerly Hall, to which one responded, "Maaaan, we don't go here."

Welcome to Harvard, indeed ...

After the weekend, I returned home skeptical of the school, but after a few conversations with family and friends, I realized that my decision was about more than choosing a college. I was the first from my high school and family to be accepted to an Ivy League school, where some of the most influential people have studied, but also where many have been excluded. Harvard's first black Ph.D., W.E.B. DuBois, remarked, "I was in Harvard, but I was not of it." I saw a chance to change this impression.

With that sense of purpose, I began classes that fall. Academically, I never struggled, and that gave me confidence, but fitting in was something different. I proudly wore the Baltimore "uniform" of white T-shirts, sweat pants, hoodies and fitted hats, and people acted as if I was going to rob them after French class. Perhaps that is why I found myself sitting alone at dinner for the first few weeks.

Frustrated by my inability to understand Harvard, and by others' inability to understand me, I broke down and flew home one October weekend. This trip renewed my sense of purpose, reminding me why I went to Harvard. I knew then I couldn't throw away this chance wallowing in my own melancholy.

I returned to campus with focus and redoubled my commitment to the Harvard Black Men's Forum, and by junior year, I was president. We established an alternative career fair, a hip-hop politics initiative, worked with the anti-sexual violence movement and co-organized the Unite Against AIDS Summit. We pushed issues of race to the center of campus discourse. Off campus, I mentored kids from the Mission Hill projects in Boston and in the W.E.B. DuBois Society. I no longer hesitated to branch out and try new things, like travel to Brazil, write a column in the school paper, or, next year, enroll at the University of Oxford in England.

Ironically enough, I consider myself successful so far, not because I am special but because I know that I am not. Many black men and women in Baltimore could be Harvard graduates under different conditions. One of the most pervasive effects of racism is the way it has restricted self-image and constrained aspiration.

What has allowed me to succeed is that I never compromised my identity and beliefs. You cannot be a leader if you only follow what others say. For example, I rejected the idea of giving up hip-hop just because I went to Harvard, and started a rap group with friends, Tha League. We have opened for Fabolous and Busta Rhymes, shot a video and performed around Boston.

I also trace my success to recognizing that, as Oprah Winfrey said, "success is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity." Recognizing that we, as black people, lack equal opportunity, demands not only protest on our part, but also additional preparation to take advantage of opportunities that do exist and create more for others.

As I reflect on my college career, I feel that I accomplished at least that, knowing that anything else would have been an affront to those who sacrificed on my behalf.

Brandon Terry is a member of the Harvard University Class of 2005.

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