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The Dialectics of the Black Harvard Woman

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Dialectics (di-uh-lektiks). Noun.

The first time I saw this word, nestled under week three of the syllabus for one of my courses last semester, I was confused — a state I've frequently found myself in during my first year at Harvard College. According to Google, dialectics is defined as “the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions,” with a secondary definition being the “inquiry into metaphysical contradictions and their solutions.”

Two vastly different entities that are inextricably linked in constant conflict, but ultimately coexist to form a single truth. The paradoxical nature of the term immediately captured my attention. For days, despite my best efforts, my mind inevitably wandered back to the concept of dialectics. It felt incredibly close to home.

In many ways, my mere existence as Black woman at Harvard is a constant game of dialectics.

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As an ambitious high schooler, Harvard was a thing of fairy tales. Its elusive prestige filled my mind with visions of old white men in suits huddled around dark rooms and smoking cigars as they plotted the future of civilization. Meanwhile, I was sitting on the living room floor and bumping SZA as my sister carefully unraveled my braids. Harvard seemed unlike anything that could possibly exist in the same universe as mine.

Then, in December of 2020, I was accepted — and my mind refused to comprehend it. For years, I’d placed this institution on an unattainable pedestal from which it looked down on almost everything else, myself included. I felt unworthy of my place, unsure of how I could possibly fit in with the Ivy League culture that was soon to surround me.

Nevertheless, August came around and I labored through the grueling course registration process. Determined to embrace the spirit of exploration for my first year, I’d even decided as a die-hard humanities student to take a science course — an intriguing blend of primatology and linguistics. Every Monday and Wednesday at 3 p.m., I took a rickety vintage elevator up to the fifth floor of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology and had fun discussions about whether monkeys could talk.

But one day, while mindlessly browsing through The Crimson’s website, I stumbled upon an article from earlier in the year about the discovery of possible remains of enslaved people on campus — and the story’s cover photo made my stomach drop. Staring unabashedly back at me from my laptop screen was the very same building I scanned into twice a week. The red brick no longer seemed rustically charming, but stained with the blood of my ancestors. Never again could I enjoy my novel vintage elevator rides without the eerie curiosity looming over me that somewhere along the way, I was passing the displaced remains of my ancestors — subjugated in life, and still not guaranteed peace and rest in death.

Moments like these serve as a constant reminder of my standing as an alien to this planet of unequivocal whiteness. I am a descendant of slaves taking a class in the building of a historically white institution that houses the possible remains of 15 individuals of African descent who were likely alive during American slavery.

My college experience will perpetually be shaped by these terrors of the past, as well as the need to grapple with my own complicity in the present. As a generationally African American woman, my familial history has always been a giant question mark. Centuries ago, my ancestors were ripped from their homelands and separated around the country during chattel slavery; today, I am forced to reckon with the gaping hole that this has left in my soul. Even so, I exist at a university that can readily access its own history — yet chooses not to prioritize its accurate retelling and reconciliation. Or the history of the people that suffered at its expense.

Parallel narratives, trapped in neverending conflict on opposite ends of a single orbit. A dialectic masterpiece, and my current nightmarish reality.

Each of these two narratives at Harvard — Black womanhood and white supremacy — must occur in tandem with one another. In order to capture the full truth of this University, we must grapple with the fact that both whiteness and patriarchy are violently and inextricably linked with its history. Harvard must realize that the knowledge of one's history is a sacred, often underappreciated privilege that must be wielded with appropriate reverence.

Therefore, to be a Black woman at Harvard is to exist as a walking paradox: A living, breathing revolution. The dialectics of my existence — and that of every other Black woman at this institution — means forming a vibrant community of love and resilience amidst the generations of hatred stacked against us, and boldly demanding the uplifting of our truth within a veritas that was never intended to include us in the first place.

Mariah M. Norman ‘25 lives in Thayer Hall.

This piece is a part of a focus on Black authors and experiences for Black History Month.

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