“Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned, This project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here.”
When students are subjected to bigotry and racism, they move to their own country and pretend to be part of this “Harvard Culture” and exhibit the same culture. The bigotry penetrates deep into their own personality.
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.
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 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.”
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 started debates on campus 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.”
“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.
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.