Hell Doesn't Seem So Hot From Up Here



Morisey looks back on her experience at Radcliffe with bittersweet pride. Even as she reminisces on the difficulty of being a Black Cliffie, I sense that she sees a bigger picture, one beyond each negative moment she experienced as an undergraduate. This doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring pain and strife or dismissing her 1969 self’s experiences, but Morisey refuses to let these moments define her.



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The first time I met Muriel Morisey ’69, Jeff P. Howard ’69, and Wesley E. Profit ’69 was under the fluorescent lighting of the Harvard University Archives, while hunched over a hefty, leather-bound yearbook from 1969 flipped open to page 88. It was the 333rd edition printed in the history of Harvard-Radcliffe, but the only one with a 24-page section titled “BLACKS.”

At the time, the yearbook’s managing editor was Lee S. Smith ’69, who’d enlisted the help of his fellow Black seniors to capture the unique experiences of their class. When they started college in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights Era and heightened integration efforts, they were the largest population of Black students ever admitted to Harvard at the time — a grand total of 40 men and seven women. Their subsequent four years on campus were defined by constant unrest as they grappled with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. during their junior spring, a rising Black Power movement, and several Vietnam War protests, including an infamous University Hall takeover.

The result of Smith’s effort was eight editorial essays written by Black students with various backgrounds and experiences, but all asserting their right to tell their own stories in their own way. Each of them were vibrant, with powerful voices that leapt off the page. As I read about these students who’d navigated Harvard’s campus 53 years before me, they put words to the internal struggles that I’d brushed off as my own over-exaggerations: misogyny within the Black community, the ever-present shade drawn over Harvard’s inner workings and how to navigate them, or the seemingly unbreakable fortitude of an unchanging institution.

The essays in that yearbook were proof that what I was feeling was real — providing the kind of comfort that can only be found in the affirming voice of an elder.

I was able to get in contact with three of the original authors. But to my (admittedly naive) surprise, the 20-something-year-olds I’d met on the worn pages of that yearbook were drastically different from the 70-something-year-olds I had the opportunity to speak to. After 53 years of life outside of Harvard’s gates, they were more detached.

They approached the relatable struggles that seemed to consume them in their personal essays with light chuckles, soft nods, and knowing smiles. I couldn’t help but feel a bit alienated. The three students I met in the yearbook wouldn’t have brushed off our shared burdens as distant affairs of the past. It was as real to them then as it is to me now. But I was beginning to realize that those versions of them were long gone.

A Feminine Hell

Because Morisey’s essay was the only one written by a woman at Radcliffe (a “Cliffie,” as she affectionately refers to herself), I gravitated toward it immediately. In it, she discusses how maddening it is to be both Black and a woman — often feeling forced to sacrifice one or the other for her survival.

“Radcliffe does not yet understand her black students, and Harvard does not yet know what to do with its women, and as a result the black Cliffie does not yet know what to do with herself,” Morisey wrote back in 1969.

When I had the opportunity, I was eager for her to elaborate on what it was like to be a Black Cliffie during such a contentious time. “Because we were Harvard students, we were absolutely convinced we were in a position to change the world,” she says. I nod in awe.

“Fifty-three years later, that strikes me as ludicrous. No offense to you,” she says.

We laugh together, and I assure her no offense was taken — but it definitely deflates my ego a bit. I came onto this campus with the exact mindset she described, an increased sense of self-importance and a one-track mind that is a trademark of Harvard change-makers. I wouldn’t say I’ve become more pessimistic. I still believe that the ability to radically reimagine the world around me is essential to who I am, but I have come to realize that there are many different routes to changing the world, in both big and small ways. I’m still figuring out where I fit into that.

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Beyond world-changing or the lack thereof, Morisey looks back on her experience at Radcliffe with bittersweet pride. Even as she reminisces on the difficulty of being a Black Cliffie, I sense that she sees a bigger picture, one beyond each negative moment she experienced as an undergraduate. This doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring pain and strife or dismissing her 1969 self’s experiences, but Morisey refuses to let these moments define her.

While keenly aware of the historical and institutional oppression of Black people, and especially having experienced it firsthand at Radcliffe, Morisey still finds herself exasperated by the narrative of victimhood. “I need the protection of the Civil Rights laws, I need the protection of a constitution that’s honored, but I don'’t need to be protected from the presence of white people,” she says.

My mother has told me something similar many times, which I’ve always dismissed as wrongfully placing too much of the blame on the mindset of Black people. But thinking about what Morisey (and my mother, for that matter) has been through, I begin to understand where they’re coming from. To be called a victim can feel like an insult to the resilience they’ve displayed by making it this far. If I made it out of “hell,” as Morisey once described her Radcliffe experience, I’d also get pretty annoyed if other people said I still needed protection. Even if some people sort of do.

In 1969, Morisey wrote, “Hopefully this situation is a temporary one. Today, however, it is at best a greater psychological challenge than one usually bargains for and at worst a kind of particularly feminine hell.”

But after our interview, it appears that hell doesn’t seem so hot from where she stands now, 53 years later. It makes me wonder just how much of my own personal hells are created for me — and how much of the flames are courtesy of my own ignition.

I ask her what she’d say to her 1969 self. “You’re going to be okay. None of the painful things stopped you. None of the bad moments set you back,” she says. “No one can take it away. The world can never undo what you’re achieving.”

It is beautiful, and it probably shouldn’t be as mind-blowing as it is.

So perhaps I don’t need to wait another 53 years for my hell to freeze over. Maybe it’s all relative to where I choose to stand.

No More Tea Anymore

Howard’s essay was a survey of his class’s intense organizing efforts to create an Afro-American Studies departmentn. As he described their experience, Howard boldly refused to accept civility and the rational nature of the “Harvard man” as a justification for inaction. He wrote with passion and fervor in the defense of Black rage. On the page, Howard sounded much like other Black radicals of the time period.

But he answered the Zoom call poised in front of a pristine background with the reflection of a ring light glinting on his glasses — all business, and clearly not his first rodeo. He didn’t look like the fierce 20-year-old I met on paper.

As president of the Association of African and Afro-American Students (more commonly known as Afro) during his junior year, Howard says he was “kind of in the center of everything.”

His involvement in political activism on campus felt natural. “It wasn’t like a choice was made,” he says. In 1969, Howard wrote, “At Harvard, black student anger was well-directed from the beginning.”

Now, Howard thinks differently.

“I think I was harder on [Harvard administration] than I would be from my perspective at age 73. They were doing what they were supposed to do. They were operating the way they had always operated,” he says. “It blunted the immature, somewhat irrational emotionalism of 20-year-olds.”

It sounded like hell didn’t seem nearly as hot from where Howard was standing, either. The fire which flowed through his pen at 20 years old had cooled significantly.

Will I look back on my own radical ideas and chuckle someday? Is hell really that hot, or am I blinded by the burning flames of youth?

For the most part, I think hell really is that hot. This institution is built on oppressive forces that are resistant to changing their ways — which I don’t believe can be so easily justified by chalking up every student’s concern to irrationalism. But Howard is probably right in some ways. I am an emotional 19-year-old, with views that are constantly developing as I experience more of the world. The problem is figuring out in which moments I should be more like Morisey and trust that things will be okay in the end, and in which moments I should demand immediate action.

You Can Take It With You

Profit’s essay explored the shifting attitudes toward leaving one’s Blackness at the door while integrating into white student organizations, and how his class eventually found ways to let it inform and enhance their work.

Profit recalls that before officially moving into Harvard, he’d decided to stay in Cambridge a couple weeks early to get a lay of the land. One day, he found himself in the North End of Boston exploring a historical site in a cemetery.

“I look up, and there are a bunch of white kids from the North End that are calling me everything but a child of God, and threatening me, so I hurry up, got out of the cemetery, and left,” Profit says.

While I am initially startled by the racial violence of this anecdote, Profit seems unfazed and chuckles heartily — he places more value on the fact that the racist incident gave him something to contribute to the dinner table of fellow Black classmates at the Freshmen Union, which then served as a freshman dining hall. It makes me wonder if his 1969 self would’ve regarded the incident with the same lightheartedness.

Profit recalls a fond memory of one of his friends at this Freshman Union table.

“He sat down at the table, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a bottle of Tabasco sauce,” Profit says. “And everybody thought he was great because in the condiments that were available when you came through the line to get your meal, there was no Tabasco sauce. There’s no hot sauce whatsoever. And here, [he] had brought it in.”

He regards this as a tiny example of adjusting to Harvard, and he notes, “You know, eventually, Harvard did the same. By the time of my sophomore year, there was Tabasco sauce among the other condiments that you found in the house.”

Profit embodies the idea of joy serving as an act of resistance, choosing to find humor in the microaggressions he routinely experienced at Harvard rather than dwelling on the hurt. He appreciates the small changes in the world, like adding Tabasco to the dining halls.

He taught me that hell didn’t have to feel so hot if you could laugh your way through it.

By the end of this experience, I can’t help but think back to those 20-year-olds I met in the University Archives, to the heat of their experiences that resonated with me so deeply. I’m not sure if the wisdom gained by time and perspective is truly powerful enough to cool the hells they vividly described 53 years ago.

Is it possible that the forces causing me to doubt my own struggles enough to seek out the guidance of dusty old yearbook pages are the same ones that make the bad memories and strong emotions seem so dull for the class of 1969? Personally, I’m no stranger to downplaying past experiences — it’s a defense mechanism that desensitizes me from painful reflection.

Regardless of how they perceive it now, Howard was an emotional 20-year-old that also happened to be right, Profit still proudly shares his tiny Tabasco story of change, and everything was okay in the end for Morisey — even if she didn’t change the world in college.

For now, I think that’s enough for me. But give me another 53 years, and that answer might change.