More than forty years ago, during my first days at college, I was made instantly and acutely aware that a lot of people seemed never to have met a black person. For the most part they were not intentionally belligerent, but they were excruciatingly, unself-consciously, dopily innocent. (“Leontyne Price actually studied opera? I thought she was just naturally musical…”)
Plus ça change, I suppose, but it is a disheartening testament to the intractability of America’s housing and educational segregation that, so many decades after the civil rights movement, many white students still seem never to have truly engaged with a black person till they get to college. More discouraging still, they then seem to turn interrogation of that void upon their black classmates’ right to be there, rather than upon the constrained and blinkered circumstances of their own upbringing.
The toll of that social gap is the subject of a new play, I, Too, Am Harvard, written by sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence with a broad coalition of classmates, which premiered on March 7. The play is presented in two acts, the first of which looks at the wide diversity of Harvard’s black students: descendants of American slaves, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, students who could (and are told they should!) pass for white, recent immigrants, mathematicians, musicians, poets, linguists, engineering students, children of all sorts of “mixed” marriages, poor kids and the children of Ivy League grads.
The second act looks at what those varied individuals have in common: this batch of young people is indisputably brilliant, thoughtful, humane and funny. A more pressing commonality, however, is that they are all routinely greeted as… otherwise.
They are treated with open disdain, the champagne flutes snatched from their hands at cocktail parties as they are mistaken for waiters. They are figured as criminals when they walk across campus. Their sexual prowess is interrogated, their beauty denigrated. They hesitate before asking questions in class—for a dumb question from a white person isn’t heard as a reflection on all white people, but any question from a black person tends to be scrutinized for inherent inferiority, “proof” that the student’s lonely little voice is the evil marker of where a “more qualified white person” ought to be sitting.
Only about 10 percent of the students at Harvard are black: yet that small, diverse population is hyper-visible. One young man described sitting down for dinner in the cafeteria, joined by four black friends. Later that evening, he was accused, by some white dorm mates, of “self-segregating.” Yet every other table in the cafeteria was all-white. He wondered aloud if his dorm mates even realized that their world is much more segregated than his. They didn’t seem to see that “they’re living all the time in a white world” and that most other people on the planet “live in multiple worlds.”