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Laugh at their jokes. Shout when necessary. Maintain a certain distance. Dress impeccably. Know who's who. Save your money. Look them in the eye. Count to ten. Straighten your hair. Pray for strength. Plot your revenge. Have a best friend. Call home often. Keep it real. Call them out. Work the phone. Remember where you came from. And be very, very good.
Being young and black at Harvard requires advanced survival skills. Seven generations of us have found it exhilarating, perplexing, difficult, and dangerous. For Rosezella Maynette Fisher, it was murder.
The day she died was the first day of the fall semester, and word spread quickly through the campus, eclipsing stories of summer jobs, August love affairs, the biannual ritual of course selection. The unexpected death of a Harvard Dean, especially an outspoken black woman who had bulldozed her way up from being a level-3 part-time secretary, was worth a few moments' pause in even the most harried undergraduate's life.
Ensconced in my second-story office in the Economics Department in Littauer Center, I looked down on the lush green of the Yard and the small clusters of students making their wayamong its narrow paths, musing about how the semester would go on inexorably, with or without her. There would be a perfunctory ceremony at Memorial Church, at which the sages of the university would offer a few kind, well-scripted words for the next morning's edition of the Crimson. Then the whole episode would be forgotten by most people.
But not by me.
You see, I was the last person to see her alive.
My name is Veronica Chase, Nikki to my friends. An Assistant Professor, I have the dubious distinction of being the only black member of Harvard's Economics Department. At thirty, I often feel that the mantle lies heavily on my shoulders. For a time, Rosezella Fisher made it lie heavier still.
Ella came to Harvard by way of Tunica, Mississippi, and the Letter Perfect Secretarial School, class of '67. Born in a tin-roofed wooden bungalow, the third daughter of a black itinerant sharecropper, she escaped her probable future as a washerwoman and the mother of a brood of children by hitchhiking to Memphis, then hopping a Greyhound to Boston. The year was 1965, and she was seventeen years old. Her father said she was a fool for listening to those "high yellow Negro teachers and all their college talk," but she was in search of an education beyond the black high school in town, and more than a few teachers had told her that there were plenty of schools to pick from up in Boston.
Ella fell in love with the city, with its gaslights and cobblestones, and coffee shops where you could sit and read for hours. Having grown up in the segregated South, she had never seen blacks and whites eat in the same restaurants, stand in the same lines for movies, or sit next to each other on a downtown bus. There was a marked decrease in petty indignities, a measurable increase in the level of hopefulness on the faces she passed in the street. She wrote her mother that she had died and gone to red-brick heaven. But the city's fancy colleges cost money, and a severe lack of funds diverted her to secretarial school instead.
The counterculture of the late sixties swept Ella into a revolutionary lifestyle that extinguished any lingering chance of her returning to Mississippi. Seduced by the radical fringe of the civil rights movement, and imagining herself a local version of Kathleen Cleaver, she took up for a short time with a newly formed chapter of the Black Panthers, then lived on a commune in New Hampshire. She finally emerged from bohemia in the early seventies, along with the rest of the country, and decided that it was time to prove her father wrong, once and for all, by earning her own living.
Going mainstream with a vengeance, she received her first paycheck at a temp job in the office of Kirkland House, one of Harvard's ivy-covered residential dormitories. Endearing herself to the House Master by working late hours and by charming the frequent alumni callers, she quickly landed a permanent place on his staff and in the Rolodexes of a number of wealthy alums, who could always count on her to secure the most coveted football tickets, share the most scandalous campus gossip, and sneak their children into Kirkland via the Master's reserved list after they had been assigned to a suboptimal dormitory through the housing lottery.
The secret to Ella's success was her combination of East Coast ambition and the "bowin' and scrapin'" she had learned as a child in Jim Crow Mississippi. She instinctively understood what people wanted to hear from her and how they needed to be treated. For one thing, realizing that it made her both more memorable and less threatening, Ella never dropped her deep Southern accent. Callers loved how she greeted them with a lilting "ma'am" and "suh" and "darlin'," never realizing that she had her tongue buried firmly in her cheek as she did it. All the while, she was perusing the pages of Town and Country and the Social Register, absorbing the fine distinctions between the Lowells, the Cabots, the Burdens, and the other well-established WASP New England families. For when it came to stroking wealthy people, she was discovering that the cliché was true: knowledge was power.
Her eleven-year stint at Kirkland ended when Harvard Law School appointed a new Dean and the call went out that he needed a new executive assistant. Ella dropped a few discreet words to her alumni network, and the favor bank swung into action. After only two rounds of interviews and a short typing test, she got the plum assignment. Although she never achieved more than thirty-five words per minute, she had other skills - including dazzling charm and a fierce protectiveness toward her handsome, fast-tracking young boss, Leonard Barrett - that quickly earned her his undying loyalty. So it shouldn't have been a complete surprise that when Leo Barrett was named President of the entire university a year ago, Ella was swept upward in the rising tide and rewarded with a high-profile new job: Dean of Students at Harvard Law School.
It shouldn't have been a surprise. But it was.
In her new position, Ella was responsible for overseeing course registrations, resolving disciplinary problems, and distributing funds to student organizations. The truth was that it was basically simple administrative work with fairly low pay. But the job came with an unbeatable title, and was an important stepping-stone to higher positions in university administration. With tenure at Harvard an unattainable dream for all but the most brilliant Ph.D.s, administrative jobs were highly coveted amongst the junior faculty as a way of remaining at Harvard while saving face. Any opening would have been attractive, but this job included an almost priceless perk: direct access to the President, since he often returned to his old digs at the Law School to rub shoulders with the faculty and administrators.
Not surprisingly, several upwardly mobile Ph.D.s and assistant law professors had been anxiously waiting to be tapped for such a position, so when Ella took the job at forty-six, she immediately became one of the few truly powerful and envied women at Harvard. With only a diploma from Tunica Colored High School and a secretarial school certificate, she had leapfrogged countless ambitious Ivy League scholars in a single bound.
Not surprisingly, the losers reacted with a vengeance.
Ella's appointment became a flashpoint for the entire university. Certain members of the conservative WASP elite openly derided the decision as a case of affirmative action run amok, mocking the President as a limousine liberal clearly blinded by his quest for diversity, using Ella's promotion as evidence that "political correctness" was eroding standards. Privately, even more ungenerous rumors circulated - she had gotten her job by sleeping with the President; she was blackmailing prominent Board of Overseers members with compromising photos; she was another beneficiary of the "liberal Jewish mafia" that was taking over the university. Innuendo, crafted with the care generally devoted to the footnotes of a dissertation, placed her in darkened restaurants with Barrett, in a secret ski hideaway in Vermont, in the alley behind the Cambridge Savings Bank, in open shouting matches with Barrett's wife.
Liberals, on the other hand, celebrated the appointment as a symbol of the "new Harvard," a clear statement that hard work and smarts at last counted for more than a fancy diploma. In the early days, "You go, girl," was shouted more than once by both blacks and whites as Ella strode across the Law School Quad.
Ella ignored it all, and to further the indignity, spent her first year as Dean of Students managing her office with an overbearing demeanor that made those passed over for the job grind their teeth in rage. She made the classic mistake of an inexperienced manager: assuming that instilling fear in her subordinates was the only way to gain their respect. Of course in her case, she might have been right: it wasn't as if people in the Dean's office were lining up to have a black woman tell them what to do. In any case, in that first year she was a management nightmare: a boss with strong opinions and no facts, obsessed with the trappings of her office, with no trusted adviser to set her straight. As always, money was tight - contrary to popular belief, the Law School alumni didn't tend toward great wealth or generosity. Sneering at the students and administrators who looked down on her, Ella seemed to take particular pleasure in denying student research grants and slashing activity budgets while demanding that fresh roses and an ample supply of Danish pastries be delivered daily to her office.
By the end of her first year as Dean, lots of people hated her. They had good reason. I, however, was uncharacteristically ambivalent.
I had quickly learned about Ella's performance as Dean through the gossip circuit that thrives among the black professors and grad students, and part of me resented her before I even met her. In addition to her full-time job, she had an exhaustive agenda of extracurricular activities, in which she played the outspoken sister-girl on campus. A darling of the recently revived Afro-American Studies Department, she was frequently seen at student association meetings and rallies, agitating for more minority hiring and loudly criticizing the light-skinned "bourgeoisie" blacks at Harvard, who had grown up rich and gone to white schools and didn't believe in unduly upsetting white people. Since that was a fairly accurate description of me, I was immediately defensive. Her favorite targets were what she called the "English dandies": two prominent black men in the university administration, both of whom had grown up poor in black communities, yet had acquired British accents - and one a white wife - after arriving at Harvard.
The words "Uncle Tom" and "handkerchief head" weren't used, but we all knew where she was heading.
Now that she was moving up the Harvard hierarchy, she seemed to be thumbing her nose at the rest of us, exaggerating her "blackness" just to prove a point. Granted, most of her criticisms were spot on - but it was still maddening. Nevertheless, I knew what it meant to be different, and to have one's credibility questioned as a result. I was no stranger to accusations that the primary reason for my rapid rise in the Economics Department was that I was a black woman, and therefore "checked two boxes," and I knew how infuriating her treatment at the hands of the white Harvard elite must be. So I kept my mouth shut until the day I could meet her and form my own opinion.
The opportunity presented itself soon enough. In the spring of his first year as President, Leo Barrett decided to appoint a university-wide commission called the Crimson Future Committee to examine how the College and the university's ten graduate schools could coordinate their fund-raising efforts into the next century. It was a volatile issue, since most of the schools were flush with money, while a few, like the School of Public Health, were struggling to meet their operating budgets. The rich schools didn't want to share their endowments, and the poor were too proud to beg. A bipartisan commission seemed to be in order to resolve their differences. Ella and I were appointed as members, along with ten others. I was ostensibly named to the committee as the representative of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, but the truth was that I was there to do the analytical work that the lordly tenured professors wouldn't touch. I figured Ella was only there as Barrett's spy.
I'll never forget the first time I saw her. She came striding into the President's conference room in Harvard Hall for the committee's first official meeting, two hundred pounds of woman in green leather stiletto heels, with African braids dangling down to her shoulders. She had flawless dark brown skin and huge, intelligent brown eyes, and she was wearing a purple suit with a large paisley shawl, several gold necklaces and dancing gold hoop earrings. The rest of us, chatting idly in small clusters, scattered before her the way smaller animals do when a very important lion approaches the watering hole. In that moment I was convinced that at least some of the rumors could be true: as she sauntered across the room throwing off clouds of Chanel Number Five, she radiated the kind of flamboyant sexual confidence that certain men find devastating. She looked like a woman with stories it would take all night to tell, and she could easily have been leading Leo Barrett around by something other than his nose.
Over the ensuing months, I realized that many of the other rumors about her were wrong. Ella was curious and sharp - there was nothing simpleminded or shallow about her. She asked good questions, and didn't tolerate faulty logic. She was the only one willing to deflate the pompous speeches of the senior professors in the group, most of whom were used to pontificating at will, and she was learning to do it with such a light touch that they were left dazzled. I watched how she handled them, how she soaked up knowledge about the way the university worked, then used it to further her own causes. I even used a couple of her tricks myself, with good results. We started meeting for coffee after the committee meetings, and she had recently opened up her Rolodex for me when I needed to interview one of her alumni friends for a paper I was writing. By the end of the summer, I had come to admire her. The woman had started at the bottom of a huge bureaucracy and over the course of twenty years had wrested from Harvard everything she had ever wanted: power, prestige, and security. It was something that I had yet to do. And she had never, ever apologized for her background, her weight, or her success. The lady had balls.
And now she was dead.
"Professor Chase?" A deep, lilting voice startled me from my reverie. "Sergeant Detective Raphael Griffin. Harvard Police."
Excerpted from A Darker Shade of Crimson by Pamela Thomas-Graham Copyright ©1998 by Pamela Thomas-Graham. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 11, 2001
This book has exicting twist and turns. It keeps you turning the page. The characters are deeply explained and the history between everyone ties the story together. If they were all strangers I doubt this book would have been such a sucess in my mind. The main character for this book makes assumptions that makes you keep thinking.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.