Black Ivy: African American Intellectuals at Harvard during the Twentieth Century

AHA Session 56
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Colorado Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Jonathan Scott Holloway, Yale University
Martha Biondi, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

Harvard University is a key site to explore the growth and development of the intellectual thought on race during the 20th century. For much of that time, it was one of the premier American universities because it represented a critical site of intellectual life, a place where the production and dissemination of knowledge occurred. Harvard is a distinct case that includes a specific cohort of historical actors. Yet it is also representative of the intellectual life at white northeastern colleges. The three papers in this panel will explore the early and late century historical developments of academics who were associated with the university. These African-American scholars began the important work of entering into public discourse in order to offer a counter narrative to the widespread racism and racial inequality of American society.

The first paper explores the intellectual development of Alain Locke during his undergraduate years at Harvard from 1904-1907. Locke attended Harvard during a time period when black students had a token presence at the white university. To the extent that students engaged in a project of racial integration, it was through small campus clubs and societies. By contrast, Locke initially rejected a public embrace of his black identity and exhibited a strong antipathy toward other individuals who were African American in private correspondence. Although the college world was not entirely welcoming to blacks, Locke’s relationship with his Jewish classmates and teachers led to his embrace of black culture. In particular, Horace Kallen’s influence was instrumental in the formation of the Locke’s literary and cultural work in the Harlem Renaissance.

The second paper looks at Derrick Bell’s critical race theory. Harvard Law School hired Bell in 1969 as a non-traditional faculty member and fired him in 1990 for an extended leave in protest of the lack of a woman of color in the faculty ranks. During those years, Bell's activism in and out of the academy helped shape his legal scholarship. One of Derrick Bell’s key contributions to academic thought is his critical race theory, which argues that racism is deeply entrenched in American political, social, and economic institutions. The embrace of colorblindness as a matter of legal policy ignores the extent to which racism is part of the fabric of American society.

The final paper examines the role of white administrators, black faculty and black students played during the 1970’s implementation phase of the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard. The administration had the power to shape the moderate and traditional direction of the department. Although there were key leftist faculty voices, such as Ewart Guinier and Derrick Bell, they lost multiple reform battles with the centrist administrators during the decade.  By contrast to the previous decade, black student activists made the strategic decision to side with administrators in regard to Afro-American Studies department reform. The newly revised liberalism of the Harvard administration supported some elements of the racial reform agenda, but not the elements that would bring about bottom-up and community based change to Harvard’s organizational structure.

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