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As Harvard acknowledges ties to slavery, an update on 'Ebony & Ivy'

The full episode transcript for UPDATE: Ebony & Ivy.


Into America

UPDATE: Ebony & Ivy

Trymaine Lee: For more than a century, powerful white men at Harvard University brought enslaved Black people to the school's campus, where the enslaved were forced to serve presidents, faculty, and students. The enslaved fed generations of these men.

They worked the land that one of the most prestigious colleges in the world sits on today. A new report released early this week by the university itself showed that Harvard's ties to slavery go much deeper than had ever been publicly acknowledged.

And that the school's finances benefited tremendously from the transatlantic slave trade even after Massachusetts abolished slavery. Harvard also acknowledged that faculty, leaders in their fields, pushed false, racist theories, and pseudoscience well into the 19th century that promoted white supremacy and the inferiority of Black people.

Along with the report, the Ivy League institution also announced the creation of a fund to continue researching its connection to slavery, create memorials and curriculum based on the research, make connections with the descendants of enslaved people, and develop exchange programs with HBCUs.

The school says the recommendations are intentionally broad, as they hope to leave room for future plans and programs. Harvard is setting aside $100 million for this effort out of their $53 billion endowment. But perhaps most striking from Harvard's public acknowledgment, for me at least, isn't the institution's connection to slavery, or how its wealth and prestige were literally built on the backs of Black people.

We kinda knew that. It's something else that I found down in the report, that researchers actually list the names of those enslaved on Harvard's campus. Names like Titus and Venus and Juba. Bilhah and Bilhah's newborn son Dinah. Belicia (PH) and Flora, Hannibal and Tony, York and Violet.

The list goes on. With their names in our mouths, we speak their humanity. And they deserve every bit of it. Just last year, I taught a study group at Harvard where I met a bunch of brilliant, talented Black students who were grappling with their identities on campus and what it means to be Black on that campus with all of that history.

We did a whole episode on whether they felt the school understood and supported them and we explored the nuances of the Black diaspora. It's estimated that less than a third of Harvard's Black students trace their lineage back to people enslaved in the United States.

When we were producing this episode, Harvard was in the midst of writing the very report on slavery that they released this week. Back then, the administration didn't wanna comment on the research. But in light of this week's news, we wanted to rerelease this episode, which originally published on December 2nd, 2021.

Trymaine: What does it mean to be Black American on the campus of Harvard?

Mariah Norman: Ooh. I think being Black American on the campus of Harvard is, that's a good question. I feel like it's about acknowledging the privilege that you've been given and take that and doing the most with it in order to give back to the people, like, at home, and the people, and your ancestors that came before you.

Because to me, it's hard to reckon with, like, the complicit nature of my presence here on campus and being at such a historically white institution, one that has had so much ties to the history of slavery. And I think those identities are constantly in tension with one another. So my answer is, I'm honestly still figuring it out what it means to be a Black American here. I'm interested to see what my answer would be as I leave this place. But that's as best as I can give you for right now.

Trymaine: Mariah Norman is a first-year student at Harvard College. I met her on campus where I've been doing a fellowship at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics. I've been teaching here for the last couple of months. And it's been great. I've gotten to meet a lot of amazing people. But by far, the biggest highlight has been the students. Students like Mariah and students like Ife and Kimani.

Kimani Panthier: My name's Kimani Panthier. I'm a sophomore here at the college and I'm originally from Long Island, New York. I'm a Caribbean American, I'm the son of two immigrants who migrated here seeking economic opportunity. I'm pursuing a concentration in government.

Trymaine: Mariah and Kimani were part of my student liaison team, who helped organize the weekly study groups that I led, called, "The Stories We Tell: Race and American Mythology." And Ife was one of a handful of students who came to the study group week after week.

Ife Adedokun: So I'm Ife. My full name is Ifeoluwa Adedokun. I'm a first year at the college. I'm from Queens, New York. I'm a Nigerian American. My parents were born in Nigeria, but they immigrated for college purposes. I've been in New York all my life, for 18 years. So I really sat there and rooted there in the culture. But yeah, that's just a little bit about me.

Trymaine: Ife and Maria became friends before school even started.

Mariah: I think we met, like, the first, like, week of school. Like, orientation. So nobody had nothin' to do. And so we would, like, find ourselves up on, like, a random floor of one of the dorms called the Inn. We would just, like, have a room in the Inn that everybody, like, if you were Black, you just, like, came in, you know--

Ife: Yeah. It was just, like, staying up till 4:00 a.m., just talking about everything Black, listening to music, ordering pizza sometimes. It was just being there. Playing Uno.

Mariah: Yeah, Uno would get intense--

Ife: Bingers experience.

Mariah: The different rules, yeah.

Trymaine: Harvard's undergrad student body is about one-third white. And just over 11% Black.

Trymaine: But one thing I have noticed, walkin' around campus, no Black people get a head nod. I see Black women looking in your eye, waiting for the head nod, I'm like, "What's up?" I do not know--

Mariah: You think so?

Trymaine: I count the time I see Black people walkin' around campus, and nary a head nod. And I don't know if it's a generational thing maybe. I'm a old head, maybe. So I'm just expecting a head nod when I see you to show some love. 'Cause not many Black people around here. What is that?

Ife: I always smile at Black women when I pass by.

Mariah: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Same--

Trymaine: You smile at Black women, but what is it about brothers especially--

Kimani: I think brothers, we don't see enough of ourselves on the campus--

Trymaine: Like, I don't even know what to do--

Kimani: So, like it's just very weird when you see another Black brother walking on the street. I think because we don't have that space that prioritizes the fellowship of Black men on campus, it's a bit awkward when you see another Black man walking by.

Trymaine: Now despite what that lack of head nods may or may not say, Harvard has increased its student diversity in recent years. In 2017, the incoming class was less than 10% Black and over 60% white. But Black student admissions steadily rose year by year.

And Ife and Mariah's class this year is about 16% Black, the highest ever. And even at just 11% Black overall, Harvard is one of the Blackest Ivy League schools. But as we know, Black people are not a monolith. And there's something else I've noticed on campus within this small, beautiful, and complex Black community here. There are a lot fewer Black folks like me, who go way, way back in this country. The American descendants of enslaved people.

Mariah: It's more of a norm here to go around the room and share where you're from. And where you're from, it's not, like, "Oh, like, I'm from Cincinnati, Ohio." It's like, "Oh, I'm from Nigeria, I'm from Haiti, I'm Jamaican," you know? And for me, just, like, regular Black, like, I don't really know.

Trymaine: As Black enrollment has increased for elite universities, so too has the share of immigrants within the Black student population.

Camille Z. Charles: I would say that immigrant, meaning first and second-generation Blacks are overrepresented relative to their share of the Black population in the U.S. And their share is growing.

Trymaine: But schools like Harvard aren't keeping track of the heritage of their Black students.

Camille: I think it's something that they don't necessarily want to talk about.

Trymaine: And that silence, it matters.

Mariah: Obviously, if you're flouting that you have diversity, you're, like, admitting Black students and, you know, reckoning with your past, but you're not actually admitting the students that have that direct tie to your past, you're clearly not doing everything that you can to mediate the issue.

Trymaine: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Harvard says they're committed to addressing their connections to slavery and white supremacy. But even as the Black student population has steadily grown over the past few years, researchers and students say an increasingly smaller share of these Black students trace their legacy to people enslaved in this country, like those whose bodies and labor helped build this institution.

Can Harvard truly make amends for its past without fully understanding the nuances of Blackness? As the school tries to bring more Black students to campus, the question remains. Black like who? Last December, when Mariah Norman checked her application page to see if she'd been admitted to Harvard--

Mariah: Okay.

Trymaine: --it was a really big moment.

Mariah Norman's Mother: (GASP) Oh you got it! Oh my God! (LAUGH) Oh my God.

Trymaine: She and her mom hugged and cries tears of joy. Clearly mom was proud and so was Mariah.

Mariah Norman's Mother: This is so exciting! Oh my God, oh my God! This is so freaking awesome. Oh my gosh. You did it! All those years, you did it. Oh my gosh! You did it.

Trymaine: And so you're a student at Harvard. How long have you been at Harvard?

Mariah: I've been at Harvard for going on two months now. Yeah--

Trymaine: That's crazy. So I've known you most of your time here?

Mariah: Yeah. You have been definitely one of the benchmarks of my time here--

Trymaine: That's crazy.

Mariah: Which is pretty interesting.

Trymaine: That's crazy.

Trymaine: Mariah is 18 years old. She doesn't have a major yet, but plans to study history and literature. And I'm nudging her toward journalism.

Trymaine: And so where are you from originally?

Mariah: I'm from Cincinnati, Ohio. Like, a suburb right outside of it.

Trymaine: So in Cincinnati, back home, describe the Black community for us.

Mariah: I was in a predominantly white, conservative town. And so the Black community within it was very small and tight knit. But we all pretty much knew each other. We, especially at my high school, I pretty much knew every Black student at least in my grade.

It was, honestly, a beautiful community. I'm really grateful for the Black community that I had back home. And also just being within a predominantly white space, it taught me how to, like, navigate that. The scale and value that it is, to be able to build communities and take the initiative to do that I think is, like, really important. And I'm glad that I went through it.

Trymaine: And then you get to Harvard, and I can imagine for all kinds of people, that's, like, a shock to the system--

Mariah: Yeah. (LAUGH)

Trymaine: A culture shock. How did you experience, like, arriving here and it just being so different?

Mariah: Yeah, I mean, Harvard in general is a culture shock, just because the way that it operates is just, like, completely different than, like, most spaces just because of just how mystifying the institution is and the prestige and this history that surrounds it. But it's been similar to sort of high school in some ways where I know how to build communities and seek out Black people and feeling safe and at home within Black communities.

Trymaine: Part of the reason building back community is so important is because even with all the privilege and prestige that comes with being a Harvard student, there's also a certain weight that comes when you understand the history.

Mariah: Being at Harvard, which is just inherently a white institution, it has so much history of white supremacy, it has ties to slavery, it still invests in the prison industrial complex, being its endowment.

Trymaine: For its part, Harvard has said that only a small part of its endowment is invested in the prison system. But activists say any amount is too much.

Mariah: So it's very much still complicit in whiteness and also patriarchy, you know? Like, women weren't even allowed at the college until, like, very recently.

Trymaine: Till yesterday, basically--

Mariah: Yeah, exactly. So being here as a Black woman is just, like, constantly a paradox, you know? Like, I know and I'm consciously aware of the spaces that I inhabit on a day-to-day basis were not created for me. And they were never made for me to be able to walk them and navigate them and get the most of them.

Trymaine: Harvard was founded in 1636 as the first institution of higher learning in the United States. And for much of its early history, the school had direct ties to slavery. Before the Civil War, Harvard was funded partly by people who made their money from the transatlantic slave trade and America's robust slave economy.

Many Harvard students were sons of wealthy plantation owners. Harvard presidents would even bring their enslaved workers to live on school grounds, so they could make their beds and fix their meals. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, Harvard professors proposed scientific theories that were designed to prove the white supremacist assertion that Black people were part of an inherently inferior race. Now, Mariah, young, gifted, and Black, walks these same halls.

Mariah: As I started to read up more about Harvard's history when The Crimson published that story about the KKK being on campus, I started to get this general sense of, like, "Okay, maybe Harvard is not the land of dreams."

Trymaine: Mariah is talking about a story from the student newspaper published this March. Student journalists uncovered a photo from 1924 of ten men in Klan robes in broad daylight standing around the statue of John Harvard, which is right in the middle of Harvard Yard. This photo has haunted me as well while I've been on campus. And for Mariah, who was there every day, there's more.

Mariah: One of the main things that I think that I interact with, Harvard's legacy with slavery on a daily basis, is they found possible remains of 15 people of African descent that were likely alive during the time of slavery. They were being housed in the Peabody Museum, and I take a class there twice a week.

Trymaine: Wow.

Mariah: And finally--

Trymaine: How do you even process that? You're going to class, and then there--

Mariah: (LAUGH) Like--

Trymaine: --are the bones and the callback to enslavement, like how do you even--

Mariah: It's, like, so, like, unsettling. And when I found that out, like, do you know what I mean, like, my stomach dropped. Like, it made my skin crawl. And it was, like, hard to go to class, like, the next day. Like, that building, I always thought of it as such a cute, charming, little, like, red brick building.

I take, like, a rickety, vintage elevator up to the fifth floor. And now, just thinking about the fact that, like, on that elevator ride, I could be passing the possible remains of my ancestors and people that were subjugated in life and now cannot even been laid to rest and get, like, the burial and the peace that they deserve, is just so, like, unsettling and gross.

Trymaine: In November of 2019, the school announced the initiative called Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. A team has been researching the school's connections to enslavement and using their research to build curriculums and facilitate discussions. For Mariah, going to Harvard, engaging with this complicated legacy, is something she started to think about before she ever got to campus. But when she got here, another interesting dynamic emerged.

Mariah: And it also has been a culture shock within Black spaces on campus, which has been really interesting. Because most of the people here that are Black identify as, like, first-generation African, or they're descendants of people who immigrated directly from Africa or the Caribbean.

And so even going in people's dorms and seeing, like, they have flags of their homelands hanging up and stuff and being able to, like, rep that, has definitely been a culture shock. Because I don't have those ties to, you know, like, the homeland.

Trymaine: Mariah was finding that for the first time in her life, most of the Black people around her were not Black like her.

Mariah: It's more of a norm here to go around the room and share where you're from. And having to just be like, "I don't know, like, just, like, regular Black. Like, I don't really know where I'm from"--

Trymaine: Yeah, we from America.

Mariah: Yeah--

Trymaine: But, yeah. (LAUGH)

Mariah: Yeah, exactly. So it was just weird to be, like, "Ohio. Like, I don't really know."

Trymaine: Mariah was wrapping her head around what it meant to be part of a Black community that was more diverse, and in some ways, more fractured than any she'd experienced before.

Mariah: There's different student organizations for, like, different areas of the diaspora. So, like, there's a Nigerian Students Association, and they had their, like, Independence Day Gala, which was so much fun. Like, beautiful to experience. But it also sort of made me sad because it was, like, all these people know where they're from and even just interacting with different spaces like that, the jokes and things that usually you typically relate to all as Black people sort of start to fly over your head.

And I don't have African aunties, I don't eat the same food at Thanksgiving, as a lot of the people here. And I didn't even realize that that was a thing, 'cause maybe that's my own ignorance. But it's been very interesting to, like, learn how to navigate that.

Trymaine: The Nigerian Students Association that Mariah mentioned, the one that throws a big gala every year says it has 200 members. That would mean that about one-third of Harvard's Black student body is in the club. In total, there are over 15 Black affinity groups on campus, like the African Students Association and the Caribbean Club. And while there is the all-encompassing Black Students Association, there wasn't a space just for people like Mariah. So last year, students got together and formed a new club.

Mariah: So GASA is a Generational African American Student Association at Harvard. And Generational African American was actually a term coined by Harvard students.

Trymaine: Generational African American. The term came about because there was a need for people like Mariah to have an easy, clear way to identify themselves. Using the term "regular Black" doesn't feel right. Because what does that even mean? And saying, "I'm a descendant of enslaved people in the U.S.," obviously doesn't work as a casual term. Anyway, Mariah was excited to join GASA.

Mariah: And I've been to a couple events and stuff so far. A lot of them have just been really casual. Just, like, kickbacks, hanging out with people that are also generationally African American. But it's just been really nice. We did, like, a panel with upperclassmen, which was cool, to talk about their experiences on campus.

And just the idea of, like, reaffirming that Black American culture is a culture was super, super gratifying and reassuring to hear. Because I came here and I started to forget. I felt that I had a lack of culture, a lack of history of homeland.

Being reminded of the fact that, like, hey, like, even though sometimes America and pop culture just sort of coopts what we've created as Black people, this was us. Like, we built so much of the culture here, the music, the fashion, food, everything. Like, we have so much, such a rich, like, legacy that we've created here just in our small time of, or I guess it's a long time now, of being, like, in this country, is something that, like, cannot be minimized or brushed over.

Trymaine: So here we are in America, the descendants of enslaved people, and enslaved people built this country. You know, our blood and sweat and everything is in this soil. We were the wealth of this country for a very long time. And a lotta institutions like Harvard will say, "We're tryin' to make amends for the past. We're doing what we can by, you know, we'll try to diversify our student body." But then you end up in a situation where perhaps far less in the Black student body are generational. Is the institution doing enough to actually remedy any of the past?

Mariah: So simple answer is no. I would say the main thing that is lacking with Harvard and its attempts to reckon with its legacy of slavery, they're missing out on the key part which is, you know, admitting and seeking out and recruiting generationally African-American students, specifically ones that are directly impacted by the effects of slavery.

So that's redlining, underfunded public schools, over-policed communities, low-income areas. All of those are directly impacted by the effects of slavery. And if you want to truly reckon with that, you need to go to those communities and get those students.

Because obviously, if you're flouting that you have diversity, you're, like, admitting Black students and, you know, reckoning with your past, but you're not actually admitting the students that have that direct tie to your past, you're clearly not doing everything that you can to mediate the issue.

Trymaine: We asked Harvard what, if anything, they're doing to recruit more generational African Americans to the school. They didn't answer the question. When we come back, a sociologist on why we see this disparity at Harvard and other top schools. Plus, more of my conversation with Maria, Ife, and Kimani. Even though Mariah, Ife, and Kimani all belong to different parts of the African diaspora. They each found a home within Harvard's broader Black community. Here's Mariah again.

Mariah: It allows me to be more comfortable so I don't feel inclined to have to code switch or switch up the ways that I move and, like, assimilate into different white, specifically academic spaces as well in order to be seen as valid or have your ideas be credits and seem like evidence. So being able to, like, come back home to Black people at the end of the day is something that I've really, like, enjoyed about my experience here.

Trymaine: Ife, I wanna get back to you with this idea of feeling safe. As a Black student, as a Black woman on campus, period, do you feel safe?

Ife: I say physically, yes. Emotionally, that's more complicated. Because, like, for example in class, saying what I said was well articulated, like, "What do you mean by that?" It's like, and it's justified. Like, always second guessing, "What do you mean by that? Like, am I student here? Am I a Black student? And, like, what are the ways that you see me? What are the ways that you interact with me?"

Three out of four of my classes I'm taking right now are about racism in some form. So I deliberately put myself in spaces where my identity is validated. My identity is talked about. It's appreciated because I want to be comfortable on this campus. I want to feel safe. So it's just having those people, having that space to see, are you feeling safe here, am I feeling safe here, just talk about your day.

Trymaine: Kimani, do you feel safe here?

Kimani: Physically, I feel safe. Emotionally and potentially spiritually, it's more complicated. I think on a more visceral level, this college does not adequately account for the Black experience. I think it's very difficult, especially as a Black man, there are less Black men on this campus than there are Black women. .

And so for us, it's very difficult to navigate these spaces that were created for white men. In our talk, in our speech, in our mannerisms, we always have to be a bit overly critical. We have to overanalyze how we conduct ourselves in the classrooms, how we dress on the streets. Because we don't want to be stereotyped or racialized by our fellow classmates or by professors or by the Harvard University Police Department. So that's always something that I'm thinking about at the back of my mind.

Trymaine: The students I've spoken with estimate that less than a third of Harvard's Black students are generational African Americans. The majority of the rest are immigrants or the children of immigrants, like Kimani and Ife. And if Mariah was shocked by that breakdown, so was Ife.

Ife: Well, before coming on here, I, like, when I was reading the names, I was like, "Wait, you're African, you're Nigerian, you're Ghanaian." And I'm like, "That's actually so interesting. I wasn't in a place where most of the Black people I knew were Africans.

And it was just interesting to see that as I step here, I knew people who had come from where I came from and had kind of had to conform to the culture here. But we're from Africa. It was just, it was like, it was an enjoyable experience, honestly.

Trymaine: Kimani, what was your experience when you first got here? You're a second year. When you first got here, you know, a Black man at Harvard, there are very few Black people anyway. But here you are, arriving with your full self.

Kimani: I was very shocked. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood, it's predominantly African American, as well as Caribbean American. So I did not know what to expect quite when I got on Harvard's campus. You know, there were international students from Africa coming on campus, international students from all around the world. And then also had never really encountered such a large white population in any way before. So it was definitely a huge culture shock, balancing two communities that I was not aware of.

Trymaine: How soon were y'all having conversations about, like, the Black experience on campus already? Or being Black, period. Or being from Nigeria, being from, you know, generationals? How quickly did y'all start having those conversations?

Mariah: I feel like it was, like, pretty soon. 'Cause it's just, like, it's such a given that, like, we're obviously Black and we're obviously at Harvard. And that's gonna inform a lot of who we are here. And the more we start to talk about that, the more we started to realize how different we all are, like, even within the diaspora, which is honestly really cool.

And just, like, hearing, like, from Ife about, like, her experiences growing up, especially, like, in a Nigerian and church and stuff, like, that's, like, an extremely, like, unique experience that I don't know much about, and stuff. So I think just, like, peeling back all the layers and understanding that has been, like, mostly where we started to talk about, like, where we're from and those differences and stuff.

Trymaine: The students are clearly having meaningful conversations about the differences and dynamics of what it means to be part of the diaspora. But is Harvard, the institution? With students just guessing at the demographics of the Black student body, we asked the school for an official breakdown. And they declined to respond. But several Harvard professors and administrators told us that the school doesn't collect this data.

Camille: Yeah, you won't get specific numbers anywhere because they don't count 'em that way, right?

Trymaine: This is Professor Camille Z. Charles. She teaches Sociology, Africana Studies, and Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Camille: I would say that immigrant, meaning first and second-generation Blacks are over-represented relative to their share of the Black population in the U.S. And their share is growing.

Trymaine: Professor Charles says this became more noticeable as colleges looked to boost their numbers of Black applicants. Coupled with the rise in immigrant from Nigeria, Kenya, Haiti, and Jamaica.

Camille: So there's a race question and that's how they count. And so even though they ask where your parents were born, they're not collecting and sort of storing the information that way. 'Cause I think it's something that they don't necessarily wanna talk about.

Trymaine: So more than two decades ago, Professor Charles began to look into this. Starting in 1999, she helped run a study of freshman heading into 28 top colleges and universities in the U.S. One thing the study aimed to do was figure out the backgrounds of the Black students who were going to these top schools.

Camille: The immigrant students were disproportionately represented at the most selective institutions, right? So the more selective the institution, the higher the percentage of immigrant Blacks relative to native or multi-generational native Blacks on campus.

Trymaine: Of the Black freshman they surveyed, over a quarter were first or second-generation immigrants. And as Professor Charles says, the harder the school was to get into, the higher the Black immigrant population. When just looking at the Ivy League schools, the Black immigrant population was 41% of all Black students.

And this study is more than 20 years old. And Black migration has only gone up. Of course, there's no universal experience for first and second-generational Black immigrants. But Professor Charles points to a few factors that have given these students some advantages.

Camille: They shouldn't be compared apples to apples to American Blacks because they're just different in terms of their human capital characteristics. They're coming from college-educated parents, parents who are often in a better position economically.

They are more heavily concentrated in high-level jobs, doctors, lawyers, those kinds of things. I'm really talking about resources. They live in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. And so often attend better-resourced schools. All of those things contribute to their above-average sort of presence on campuses.

And so it isn't that Nigerians and Ghanaians value education more than American Blacks do, right? So the common stereotypes that grow out of this is that immigrant Blacks have a stronger work ethic. And if American Blacks were just more like them, we wouldn't have these problems. And it just doesn't wash out.

Trymaine: But even though Professor Charles debunk these harmful stereotypes, the fact remains that at elite schools, Black immigrant student populations are disproportionately higher than generational Black students. So it begs the question, do universities like Harvard, that have gone out of their way to say, quote, "We will address our troubled past when it comes to slavery," have a responsibility to students descended from enslaved people?

We sent Harvard a detailed list of questions asking for their response and what, if anything, they're doing to address this disparity. They didn't answer the questions or send a statement. Instead, they sent us a series of links to their admissions page, class demographics, and the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Initiative.

There's a saying, and I use it often, "It's not where the boat dropped you off, it's where it picked you up." Despite their different lineages, my students, Kimani, Mariah, and Ife, are still experiencing Blackness at an overwhelmingly white institution. Ife puts it like this.

Ife: I feel like we all recognize that being Black is a universal experience. I am Black. Primarily, the issues facing racism, colorism, anti-Blackness, they don't really result from like Nigerian heritage. It's mostly from being Black in America. And when I say, "You only got here because you're Black, you don't deserve to be here," it's not because you're first-generation Black or you're generational African American. It's because you're Black, period.

Kimani: And I think being born into this country, you are forced to take on the story of generational African Americans as a Black man, as a Black person in this country. And so I think there's something unique about how children of immigrants experience this country that their parents are not able to relate to.

So while racism is definitely rampant in America, my parents aren't able to relate to that racism in a visceral way. Whereas me being a person born in America and the son of immigrants, I'm able to empathize and share in those experiences of Black Americans.

Ife: There are differences to our universal Black experience that have been affected by the cultures we've been surrounded with. But it's still that diaspora, like, that coming together of one people, one nation, as being Black, period.

Trymaine: When it comes to the Black student body population, the diaspora, where are points where you've seen, you know, a coming together?

Kimani: I'd say I've seen the coming together at Black Convocation, which is our annual event where the entirety of Black Harvard comes together to start off every academic year. And in those spaces, you see the Black excellence. You see the coalescence of Black culture, whether it's Africans, Caribbeans, generationals.

We're all coming together to share in the experience of what it means to be Black at this institution. I think it's very important that we check up on each other as members of the Black community in our respective club meetings, whether that's GASA, whether that's the Harvard Caribbean Club, or the Nigerian Students Association.

The breakdown of our different cultural and affinity groups can sometimes abrade the coalescence of what it means to be Black. So I understand that we have different identities and that we have specific needs based on those industries. But it's important that every now and again, we come together to facilitate some large-scale Black cultural experience.

Archival Recording: Hello and welcome to Black Convocation (UNINTEL).

Mariah: I think even the culture shock within the Black community, you sort of just have to, like, embrace it. And also, find all the beauty in interacting with different cultures across the diaspora. You know, finding my place within that has been something that I think is pivotal to my growth as a person and has, like, a generationally-Black person in America, I totally agree with Kimani.

I think Black Convocation was so beautiful. I feel like having those, like, big just, like, all Black students getting together, those are always, like, my favorite because it's just, like, a celebration of all the cultures together. And it feels more unifying and, like, less isolating for me sometimes.

Trymaine: Sitting down with these students, like I've gotten to do multiple times a week, you feel that sense of community. Even if the university isn't ready or equipped to have some of these difficult conversations about the diaspora on campus, or Blackness for that matter, I have no doubt the students will do it themselves.

Ife: So I feel like as for generations, we think it's, like, a competition. It's, like, if one of us increases, that means the other has to stay the same. But I feel like acknowledging that both numbers can increase and percentages can increase, I feel like a lot of immigrants, they like to think, like, "Oh, we're giving our child a spot."

What about the other people who are descendants of slave, who are generationally African American? It's really the initiative of them. We can only do so much as students. They have the resources, they have this $50 billion endowment that's just sitting pretty, sitting pretty, that you can use to go into schools, to send admissions officers to school, to talk about the program.

Mariah: And I think that that change really can, like, start right here, like, with the Black students. And in making more structural changes, as we've all talked about, making those tangible efforts to reckon with their past could really inspire America to do the same.

And I really believe that that's an incredible opportunity having that bigger perspective of being, like, "I can change not just of what it's like to be here, but what it's like to be in America because of how inextricably linked Harvard is with America." You have to always have that in the back of your mind that you're not just inflicting and changing what's happening on Harvard's campus, but it really can have larger implications for greater society.

Trymaine: For more on the new report from Harvard, on the legacy of slavery at the school and what it plans to do, check out the links on our show notes. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the handle @AtIntoAmericaPod. Or you can tweet me @Trymaine Lee.

And if you want to write to us, our email is This episode was produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. Additional production help from Stefanie Cargill, along with Mark Arees, Clinton Bramesco, Thomas Fahey, and Gilberto Nobrega. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next week.