A cosmopolitan mix of students, neighbourhood denizens and visitors like myself shared tables under the leafy canopy of the well-treed outdoor terrace of the Au Bon Pain restaurant on Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one warm August evening earlier this month.
A classical guitarist had set up his amplifiers curbside and occasionally wandered musically into jazz. Several tables of chess players lined the area just below the east side of the deck.
The varied skin hues, snippets of overheard conversations in various languages and the intergenerational mix of people enjoying the gentle evening breeze presented an image of peace and harmony.
Being in the shadow of Harvard University just across the road, however, demanded critical inquiry. Fortunately sharing the table with my wife, Eva, and me was Mario Valdes, researcher extraordinaire and longtime resident of Cambridge.
Valdes took us on a late evening tour of the precincts of Harvard University after our meal.
We entered the Old Yard through the Johnston Gate. The surrounding dormitories filled largely with foreign students it seemed taking summer programs there obviously contributed to the polyglottal atmosphere. After crossing the Harvard Yard proper between Memorial Church and the Widener Library we zigzagged south towards the Charles River.
Founded in 1636 Harvard University holds the record as the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Valdes appreciatively pointed out the architectural heritage of the 373 intervening years as we walked. Cupola topped towers and quiet courtyards of current student residences like Dunster and Mather Houses near where we turned east on Flagg Street after our walk along the Charles River, had long been the home of the academic elite of the United States.
Until not much more than a generation, or so, ago, Harvard’s halls largely saw only white, male, English first language students. In a narrow two-storey, grey, wood-frame house at 20 Flagg Street W.E.B. Du Bois found a room to live in during his graduate school days at Harvard in the late 1800s.
Blacks were not allowed into residence at the Harvard dormitories of that era.
Du Bois became the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard in 1895.
Possibly his experiences at Harvard forced him to recognize that he had to challenge the dominate culture on all grounds.
Maybe his Flagg Street landlady, Mary Taylor, whose Jamaican Maroon ancestry was anchored in resistance against oppression, influenced him. Whatever the root, he came to be considered by many as the most influential African American thinker and a key civil rights advocate during the first half of the 20th century.
Just a few blocks north of 20 Flagg Street and on the edge of the main Harvard University campus a more spacious yellow, wood-framed, two-storey house with white trim sits at 17 Ware Street. It was there on July 16th that Henry L.Gates Jr. was handcuffed, led away by police and charged with disorderly conduct while in his own home.
Gates is a professor at Harvard University as well as, ironically, a director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
Gates, is quoted in a July 24th Toronto Star article, as insisting that the globally reported story “this isn’t about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America.” Incidentally, Mario Valdes, our guide for the evening, currently is researching the story of Harvard’s earliest black students with support from Gates.
The incident that swirled around professor Gates, who has been referred to as “the nation’s most famous black scholar,” revealed, if nothing else, just how thin the veneer of racial harmony still is in the United States. Clearly Cambridge, whose black mayor, E. Denise Simmons, refers to as “the nation’s classroom,” still has much work to do to ensure that it provides an open, welcoming home to people of whatever ancestry.
Here in the Yukon, and elsewhere in Canada, our communities share the same challenge.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, August 23 – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. A suggested reading is John 6: 53, 60-69.
Sunday, August 23 – Ganesha Chaturthi, the Hindu festival honoring the birth of the Lord Ganesha, the god of prosperity and success, is celebrated.
Sunday, August 23 – United Nations Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition pays tribute to the historic resistance of enslaved humanity particularly of Haitian slaves in 1791 whose rebellion lead in part to the abolition of transatlantic slave trade.
Friday, August 28 – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech to 200,000 marchers at a civil rights demonstration in Washington, DC on this date in 1963.