From the Harvard Crimson in 2020:
BY JOSIE F. ABUGOV, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER
OCTOBER 15, 2020
“Where are you really from?”
Kaya R. Bos ’20 used to answer “slave Black.” Jarah K. Cotton ’23 would say “regular Black.” But when Alexa J. J. Brown ’20 sent an email to hundreds of Harvard students, she started a process that gave them a more fitting response — and eventually culminated in the formation of the Harvard College Generational African American Students Association.
“Generational” is a big word in reparations talk. The idea is that as Baby Boomers die off, white kids inherit houses in nicer neighborhoods than black kids, which is all the fault of FDR’s redlining and has nothing, nothing to do with the behavior of the residents of the houses since 1938.
… O’Sullivan’s grandfather, Reverend Isaiah Webb, coined the term “Generational African American” or “GAA,” during one of many conversations with his granddaughter about the Black diaspora. The invention finally created a label for the community of Black folk who trace their lineage in the United States back for centuries.
… Still, the term GAA is Harvard-specific, unfamiliar to most of the Americans it describes.
But how much long run influence has Harvard ever had on the rest of America? For instance, the fact that Casablanca was shown round the clock during Harvard’s final exam week at the near-by Brattle movie theatre has nothing to do with Casablanca’s iconic status among all the good movies made during that era.
As I’ve been working on this article, recounting tidbits to my mom, she’ll sometimes clarify — “We’re called what again, Josie?”
My guess is that the reporter, who recently graduated from $41,300 per year Harvard-Westlake School in the Hollywood Hills, is the Harvard legacy daughter of a white sit-com writer, who wrote for terrific shows like Cheers, Golden Girls, and Roseanne, and a TV executive who is at least as black as Rashida Jones. A lot of black students at Harvard have pedigrees like hers. A lot of the other black students at Harvard have pedigrees like the African side of Barack Obama’s ancestry.
But despite its confinement to the Harvard bubble, the act of naming has been powerful within these Black communities.
Harvard has over fifteen Black organizations, but O’Sullivan, Bos, and Brown noticed that within these communities they valued, GAA [i.e., real African-American] voices were sometimes misunderstood.
Toward the end of last semester, in a GroupMe for Black students at Harvard, students started a conversation about social hierarchy within the Black community. Some expressed concerns that GAA students were perceived to occupy the lowest rung, spurring a number of Black ethnic organizations to hold discussions about inclusivity within their own clubs. Students also expressed concerns about the relative scarcity of GAA students on campus. …
The demographic disparities that inspired GAASA — a sense that there should be more GAA students at an institution like Harvard — raise a host of questions about representation within elite spaces, access to the resources they provide, and the efficacy of promoting marginalized groups within them. But advocating for GAA students carries fraught undercurrents: the reality that promoting specificity can tread closely to the needless trap of pitting marginalized groups against each other.
The difficulties of advocating for Generational African Americans — from increasing visibility on campus to addressing national, more controversial topics like reparations and affirmative action — show how the perception of a zero-sum game among Black people produces false choices, concealing how Blackness must contend within spaces historically structured by white supremacy.
False, I tell you! Granted, I, personally, am only a small percentage black but I deserve my reparations check as much as you do.
During pre-orientation before the start of my freshman year, I sat in the Yard on a humid afternoon in a circle of people I had met the day before. Between awkward get-to-know-you games and jittery small talk, it struck me that I had never before been with a group of Black kids who all knew their lineage, who had a place to point to on a world map that was not the United States.
When Adiah J. Price-Tucker ’22, GAASA’s former Political Action Chair, got to Cambridge, she felt a sense of culture shock. “I come from a place that’s heavily Generational African-American and that’s what I was familiar with,” she says. She noticed that other facets of the Black diaspora, such as Nigerian culture and Caribbean culture, appeared at the “forefront of the Black social scene.”
“I really love those cultures — all my blockmates are either first-gen African or first-gen Caribbean, so I’ve definitely learned a lot about all of these cultures and really enjoy them — but GAASA was somewhere that I felt at home,” she says.
Within Black communities at Harvard, there’s an overarching belief that GAA representation is disproportionately low, that “we’re in the minority,” as O’Sullivan explains. Every Black student I interviewed — GAA or not — expressed this as common knowledge.
As a first-year, I once heard from a teaching fellow of the Introduction to African American Studies course that GAA students make up 10 percent of Harvard’s Black population. For the Class of 2022, that would mean roughly 17 students
Nobody actually knows because that would require research and Harvard isn’t a research university, now is it?
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