Their portraits show the Harvard students with signs bearing messages from the bluntly resentful to the mockingly incredulous.
“Having an opinion does not make me an ‘Angry Black Woman,’ ” reads one message.
Another reads: “ ‘You’re LUCKY to be black . . . so easy to get into college!’ ”
The images are part of a multimedia project reflecting the experiences of dozens of black students called “I, Too, Am Harvard.’’ It has spread quickly across social media, laying bare the racial tensions on campus and raising questions about inclusiveness, identity, and racial stereotyping.
“People tell us we don’t deserve to be here,” remarks one student in a video produced for the project, addressing how some students feel about affirmative action and the Harvard admissions process. Another student observes that whenever the subject of race or slavery comes up in classroom discussions, all turn to see how she, a young black woman, will react.
“I go to Harvard, but I don’t really feel of Harvard,” says another student of color.
A statement posted on Tumblr, where the photo gallery first appeared this month, sums up the driving spirit behind the project.
“Our voices often go unheard on this campus,” it reads, “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. This place is ours.”
The campaign has drawn tens of thousands of viewers. A link on BuzzFeed had generated more than a million views by late Wednesday. Comments have poured in, from Harvard and beyond, and media attention shows no signs of letting up, according to the student team behind the project.
On Friday, a play based upon the personal reflections of roughly 40 black students will be staged at Harvard’s Lowell Lecture Hall as part of the university’s annual Black Arts Festival. “I, Too, Am Harvard,” the stage version, will feature student actors delivering lines from a script based on interviews collected last fall by Harvard sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence. She leads a group of seven students who have been working on the project since winter break.
Responding to the campaign, Donald Pfister, interim dean of Harvard College, sent an e-mail to undergraduates late Wednesday that praised the debate it has generated.
“Harvard is a place where the community supports and fosters conversations, ideas, and creativity,” the e-mail read in part. “Harvard is also about inclusion. This photo campaign, based on a play which will premiere Friday night, is a great example of students speaking about how we can become a stronger community. ‘I, Too, Am Harvard’ makes clear that our conversation about community does not and should not stop.”
In all, more than 60 students were interviewed for the “I, Too, Am Harvard” multimedia project. Those whose portraits have appeared on the Tumblr page are not identified by name. All are Harvard undergraduates, however, and several are involved in the stage production, which quickly sold out this week.
With the production, the project’s creators hope to jump-start an even wider discussion about racial stereotyping and racial assumptions at Harvard and other campuses. Many are already deeply into that conversation. At UCLA, a group of black students made a “Black Bruins” video last fall, sparking a discussion about race and affirmative action.
“This is not an anti-Harvard campaign,’’ Matsuda-Lawrence, 20, said between classes Wednesday. “It’s us raising our voices and trying to change Harvard for the better. We’re not just rolling out stats about minorities. It’s us asking, do students of color have a sense of ownership at Harvard?”
The project, she said, gives black students “a space to speak up, one we haven’t really had before on campus.” Black student representation on campus has held steady over the past four years, according to admission figures released by the university, fluctuating between 10.2 percent and 11.8 percent.
Overall, undergraduate admissions figures for minorities — including, blacks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans — have ranged between 43 and 45.6 percent over the past four years. The current college population includes 9.4 percent, or 626 of nearly 7,500 undergraduates, who identify as African-American.
The Harvard community is diverse, notes Matsuda-Lawrence, who is black-Asian. Racially, politically, socioeconomically, students bring different backgrounds and perspectives to campus. Yet virtually all minority students, she says, have encountered attitudes and comments like those captured in the campaign’s sobering images and eloquent words.
“It’s powerful to have students . . . take abstract concepts and make them highly personal,” said Abigail Mariam, a junior from California whose portrait is included in the photo campaign. She holds a sign reading, “No, You Can’t Touch My Hair.”
Mariam and Matsuda-Lawrence belong to a campus vocal group, the Kuumba Singers, that has shepherded the “I, Too, Am Harvard” initiative and will perform during this weekend’s arts festival. Last spring the group, members of the college’s oldest existing black organization, went on tour in Philadelphia and Chicago. As part of the experience, they gathered for a discussion about racial issues, among other topics.
One hot-button subject was a signed column that was published in the Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper, in November 2012. Titled “Affirmative Dissatisfaction,” the author questioned whether an affirmative action policy based on race “does more harm than good” and suggested it “imbeds racism in future generations.”
Comments in the piece such as one equating granting black people entrance into Harvard with “teaching a blind man to be a pilot” angered and hurt many of the members of the Kuumba Singers, Mariam recalls. On campus, a furor erupted over the column.
Last fall, Matsuda-Lawrence designed an independent study project built on interviewing minority students about their experiences. Their comments were kept anonymous. As she pored over the transcribed interviews, Matsuda-Lawrence felt she had something valuable to share with a larger audience. By the end of the tutorial project, she had written a draft of the stage play and later gathered a team that helped create the Tumblr gallery.
Glenda Carpio, a professor of African and African-American studies and English, supervised the independent study. She says the issues of racial identity raised in the interviews “are sometimes understood to be too much about identity to be part of the classroom conversation.”
“Kimiko understood this and wanted to give them a forum,” Carpio said. The resulting project, in her words, “challenges assumptions that questions about identity are anti-intellectual.”
While these issues are not new to Harvard’s minority students, many put their heads down and quietly pursue their degrees, Carpio said. Matsuda-Lawrence possesses an activist sense that’s rare, she added.
Carol Powell, another Kuumba member, was recruited to shoot the portraits. Harvard student Ahsante Bean shot the video piece, posted on YouTube, in which a handful of students express themselves more completely.
Matsuda-Lawrence and her team hope to take the “I, Too, Am Harvard” template to other campus groups that have contacted them already.
“As black students at Harvard, a place of power and privilege,” she said, “we have an obligation to the larger black community.”
Closer to home, she added, having black students stage a play written from their own hearts is gratifying.
“At Harvard,” she said, “the theater scene is very white.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.