“I was desperately afraid of intruding where I was not wanted; appearing without invitation; of showing a desire for the company of those who had no desire for me. I should in fact have been pleased if most of my fellow students had wanted to associate with me; if I had been popular and envied. But the absence of this made me neither unhappy nor morose. I had my ‘island within’ and it was a fair country.”
— W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Negro Student at Harvard at the End of the 19th Century”
When Zena Edosomwan arrived on Harvard’s campus three years ago, he had no idea of its history.
Before he knew where or what Harvard was, before he understood the centuries of history behind the nation’s oldest institute of higher learning, before he could grasp what it meant to walk the Yard the son of a Nigerian mother who moved to America at 22 to make a life for herself and in turn Edosomwan, before he ever explored the sense of identity and belonging that generations of black students had wrestled with before him, the idea was that basketball alone is what brought him there.
Scouts filled the gym at the Studio City, Los Angeles, prep school Harvard-Westlake to see Edosomwan’s size, speed, and skill converge on the court, but Edosomwan was looking beyond the lines.
As a top-100 recruit, he had the college basketball world at his feet. He had offers from 39 schools. He could choose between the glitz of his hometown at UCLA and Southern Cal or the lore of big-time college basketball in the Big 12 at Texas or in the Atlantic Coast Conference at Wake Forest. But when he visited Harvard, he realized how much bigger the world was.
“To be honest with you, we started driving around here and I just got that feeling,” he said.
Edosomwan’s decision to commit to Harvard defied logic to almost everyone except himself. Harvard’s basketball coach, Tommy Amaker, could tell during the recruiting process that Edosomwan viewed basketball not necessarily as an end but a means.
“He’s a unique, special kid with different interests,” Amaker said. “And he cares in different ways about different things and things touch him and matter to him. It’s not just about basketball. Basketball is important, but you can utilize it every way you can.”
The Harvard culture could have been a shock when he arrived on campus in the fall of 2013, but he was ready to embrace it.
“I love it,” said Edosomwan, now in his third season with the Crimson as a forward/center and his first as its true centerpiece. “I find myself in a beautiful, rich community.”
But he couldn’t help but still look out at the world beyond the ivy.
That summer, the firestorm that was the trial of George Zimmerman ended with Zimmerman being acquitted in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The story of how their paths crossed, the debate of self-defense versus racial profiling, and the fury on both sides of the argument following the trial were inescapable.
No matter what social media outlet he checked — Facebook, Twitter — Edosomwan saw it.
“I would hear a lot of things about people just sounding racially insensitive on both ends of the spectrum,” he said.
Between that and the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York, a mass murder in Charleston, a protest led by student-athletes at the University of Missouri, and tension in the Ivy League’s own backyard at Harvard and Yale, Edosomwan’s first two years at Harvard were a time capsule for racial tension. He wished there was a way to cut through it all.
“For me as an African-American, I thought it was important to ask how do I take all that negativity that I was seeing — whether it’s people hating on each other on social media or just the racial dynamics of that case — and basically just take the focus back to positivity and self-love.”
Edosomwan, still months away from the start of his first college basketball season, found himself tangling with the same questions of racial identity as so many Harvard students before him, with no simple answers.
Ultimately, he asked himself, “What can I do?”
He came up with an idea to express both identity and individuality, to try to replace divisiveness with some semblance of understanding. The idea turned into a two-year endeavor that became the multimedia project he called, “#HarvardBlackIs.”
The premise was to have Harvard students explore what it meant to them to be black.
The project was akin, in spirit, to the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign that gave a voice to a frustrated black student body in 2014. Edosomwan released the multimedia package in the fall, before the start of the Crimson season. In a collection of photos posted to Tumblr and in a video Edosomwan shot and edited himself then posted on YouTube, 12 students answer his open-ended question.
He reached out to other campuses — Boston University, Spelman, and Morehouse — to broaden the project’s reach.
But the purpose was simple: Start a dialogue. Each person Edosomwan spoke to had the ability to open their own window. Because it was all open to each individual’s experience, the idea couldn’t be boxed.
“How do I have people express themselves without me having to do it for them?” he said. “I want them to come up with their own thing, so the concept was to have people pick a word — any word. Something positive like ‘love.’ ”
The thought became a springboard. To one person, black was “beautiful.” To another, black was “family.”
“I wanted them to come up with their own idea,” he said. “I wanted them to take the idea and run with it.”
To Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu, who grew up in Bellingham, was recruited to play soccer at Harvard, and now studies economics with a minor in African-American Studies, black was “intelligent.”
“The way I interpret intelligence is trying to get knowledge from every part of your life around you, everything around you,” said Wheeler-Omiunu. “You don’t just gain knowledge from school, you gain it from your interactions, you gain it from your experiences. I’m a very firm believer in the saying that knowledge is power. There’s nothing like the power knowledge can give you.”
Wheeler-Omiunu met Edosomwan when they were freshmen. Like Edosomwan, Wheeler-Omiunu’s parents were Nigerian and spoke one of the country’s more than 500 languages, Yoruba. They learned that the school offered a course in the language and took the class together. When Edosomwan asked him to be a part of the project, Wheeler-Omiunu said it was humbling.
“He said he was working on a project that was close to him and he wanted to better represent the black community at Harvard,” Wheeler-Omiunu said.
The concept, Wheeler-Omiunu said, was something he had already been thinking about.
“Everybody, no matter what race you are or where you’re from, you want to feel like you’re a part of something that’s more than just yourself,” he said. “And if you’re in a place that has this reputation of being this great place for developing creativity and nurturing creativity, you shouldn’t feel like you don’t belong here. Most importantly, you shouldn’t feel like you don’t belong here just because of the color of your skin or the color of your hair or the color of your eyes.
“Physical features aren’t the things that are going to determine where you belong. It’s how your mind works and how your heart works and how you process information and how you relate to other people around you. So it’s an important topic to discuss and to continue to discuss.”
The identity of the black Harvard student has been explored, explained, dissected, and discussed for more than a century. In 1960, 65 years after W.E.B. Du Bois became the first African-American to graduate from Harvard with a doctorate, the Massachusetts Review published the autobiographical essay in which Du Bois reflected on his time at the university by writing, “I was in Harvard, but not of it.”
For Edosomwan, the seeds for the project were planted almost as soon as he arrived at Harvard.
His freshman year, he took Henry Louis Gates’s African-American Studies course and he was so star-struck that he took a selfie with the professor. He lived in the same house as Scott Poulson-Bryant, author and founder of Vibe magazine, and soaked up all of his stories.
But his closest connection was with someone whose path to Harvard ran parallel to his own. For Edosomwan, coming to Harvard was a risk, but a calculated one with layers.
His mother, Kehinde Ololade, had moved to America from Nigeria when she was 22, leaving a place where women often had decisions made for them to come to a country where she could create a life for herself. She first lived in Houston before moving to Los Angeles, where she opened up what would become a successful beauty salon.
The first week Edosomwan was on campus he met Cyrus Motanya and quickly realized how much they had in common. Motanya was born in Kenya but his family had laid roots in Houston, as well. Applying to Harvard, Motanya said, was on a whim.
“I didn’t know what Harvard in itself meant,” Motanya said. “I didn’t know the history behind it. I didn’t know the good and the bad that Harvard really had. So I also had a huge learning curve coming in.”
He first ran into Edosomwan at a pre-orientation program.
“It’s hard to miss him,” said Motanya, a junior studying government. “He’s 6-foot-9.”
The more they talked, the more they bonded.
“We come from similar backgrounds so we were able to share things about our personal lives,” Motanya said. “It’s more of an understanding of each other coming from a similar and shared experience and having the same drive to do well.
They both went to an introduction program by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum, an organization founded in the 1970 then reincarnated 17 years ago to give black men on campus a safe haven for discussing social issues.
The program explored the history of black men at Harvard, taking them on a walkthrough of some of the touchstones of black history across campus.
One was Stoughton Hall.
Barely 60 years ago, Harvard was still an all-male institution and its 11 black students were all housed in Stoughton Hall. In 1952, two freshmen burned a cross in front of the Hall. Their identities were kept secret by administration, and the punishment — probation — was lenient.
As Edosomwan and Motanya listened, the stories opened their eyes.
“Going from that to where we are today was just reminding them that Harvard has not always been a place for people like us,” Motanya said. “So we have to try to make it our own.”
While Edosomwan thrived on the court, helping to win Ivy League titles in each of his first two seasons, Motanya came into his own, eventually becoming vice president of the Harvard Black Men’s Forum.
They became roommates, but more than that they became each other’s sounding board. Motanya offered Edosomwan an ear.
“This is just another way to help solve a problem that we see happening in our world,” Motanya said. “If we can have just our classmates and our peers and whoever we can reach start to think critically about whatever personal prejudices and biases they bring into the interactions that they have with other people, then we’ll be doing the world a little bit of good.”
The feeling that lingered with Du Bois — that he was in Harvard, but not of Harvard — stuck with Motanya, but in Edosomwan’s effort to celebrate the uniqueness of the black Harvard experience, Motanya also saw an opportunity to stake claim.
“To go from that to ‘I, Too, Am Harvard’ and ‘#HarvardBlackIs,’ ” Motanya said, “it’s really claiming the space as our own like we belong here and we have a right to be here.”
As the project took shape, Edosomwan looked for ways to reach beyond Harvard’s campus. He reached out to a longtime friend, Taylor Jackson, at Spelman College in Atlanta.
Edosomwan showed her the video last August. When she watched, Jackson realized what she experienced at an all-female, historically black college was different from what Edosomwan experienced at a predominantly white, Ivy League school. Even at an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities), students explored different cultures in associations for African students, Caribbean students, Muslim students. She saw the project as a chance to connect three of the most prominent HBCUs — Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta University — and celebrate diversity not only in race but in those cultures.
“Our experience of being black on a college campus is definitely different,” she said. “But coming from an HBCU standpoint, we have a lot more freedom to express and define for ourselves what black means. I had that theme of just taking back definition because definition is power. So if we just take back that word and say, ‘You may think black is this but let me show you what black actually means to me.’
“I think coming from my campus, it was just very empowering. People got to really express everything what we’re taught at Spelman, Morehouse, Clark. We got to articulate it, put it into words, and on the flip side got to show people who wanted to see it what our campus actually looked like.”
The conversation had been going on long before Edosomwan got to Harvard, but his aim was always to use his platform to advance it.
“The goal was just to spark conversation, spark thought,” Edosomwan said. “And if I simply did that, then I was happy about that.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.