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And so our mothers and grandmothers have,
more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see—or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.
Somehow, it just didn't feel right. Maybe it was the way that I was brought up, but it was hard for me to say it.
Although I felt blessed and honored to have the opportunity,
I just had a hard time saying aloud that I was "a graduate student at Harvard University." After all, I know good and well that I'm just a country girl from Sweetwater,
Tennessee, who never saw herself as the Ivy League type, but what impression did that title give people who didn't know me?
I was not alone in this dilemma. Many of my black and Latino colleagues in the Graduate School of Education felt the same way. Several of us had to admit that when we told people we were going to graduate school and they asked where, we answered evasively, "Uh, Boston." It wasn't that we were embarrassed about being smart or weren't proud to be there; it was just that the perception people have of "Hah-vahd," conjured up images of privilege and snobbery. Many of us were first–generation college graduates from lower to middle-class families, and most of us were there because we wanted to give back something of educational value to the underserved students of color in America's schools. We actually discussed more than once whether going to Harvard was an asset or liability when our goal was to return to the neighborhoods we came from, "keep it real," and be taken seriously by regular folks. Would we build a "barrier of bourgeoisie" by having a Harvard degree?
Very quickly it was June and graduation day arrived. An incredibly rich year of reading, writing and discussing educational issues had flown by, and I was standing outside in a processional line with my dorm mates and new friends-so-close-we-were-almost-family from the Black Student Union. I sat dazed in my cap and gown on the same lawn where I'd seen Nelson Mandela receive an honorary degree back in September. I sat in a row of brown faces on the lawn with its giant oak trees that had been there since 1636 and tried to comprehend what in the world I was doing there. While the platform dignitaries waxed eloquent, it felt surreal. I snapped back to reality when it was Hazel's turn to take the platform.
Hazel Trice Edney, graduating from the Kennedy School of Government, was my friend from the dorm and one of the sharpest sisters I have ever met. She had won the speech contest and was believed to be the first African American woman ever to give the graduate student address at a Harvard graduation. Hazel from Louisa,
Virginia, who had grown up in a home with no indoor plumbing and became a single welfare mother at age fifteen,
had managed to earn her college degree and risen through journalism in the black press, covering politicians like Governor L. Douglas Wilder. She would soon start a Congressional fellowship in Washington, D.C., in the office of Senator Edward Kennedy. Her delivery of the speech was flawless, and we were all proud to know her.
Suddenly, listening to Hazel, proudly watching her represent all of us, it hit me. This wasn't about me. I was there as a representative. I looked up into the branches of the centuries-old trees and thought about what they would have looked like back in 1636. I thought about where my ancestors would have been in 1636 . . . 1736 . . . 1836 . . .
even 1936, and how remote the possibility seemed that any of their daughters would ever be at Harvard. I thought about Grandma Mildred, valedictorian of her Cook High class with her career options so limited. No,
this degree was not about me at all. This was about standing on the shoulders of my black grandmothers who scrubbed floors and cared for babies—both theirs and others'. Black women whose potential went untapped and whose intelligence was so long ignored. Women whose great minds could have been idle, except they rerouted genius, pouring it into rearing the next generation. This degree was for my grandma, who was a farmer's wife and a housekeeper, but never just that, like so many black women seen only as the shadow domestic by the outside world but who stood out as pillars of dignity in their own communities. This degree was dedicated to a woman who had to sacrifice many of her personal dreams as a young woman, but made sure all eight of her children had a respect for education and would ascend to the level of their own potential. It was dedicated to a woman who passed on heritage to her numerous grandchildren with old Ebony and Jet magazines, her gardens and recipes,
family stories and photo albums. I was here because she could not be, but had the self-respect and insight to pass something significant on to her offspring.
Sometimes I still have a hard time knowing just what to say when people ask me about graduate school, but right there in Harvard Yard, I made my peace with it. Grandma Mildred didn't know it, but when I walked across that stage, I did not just get my own degree. I held in my hands her honorary degree in motherwit, holistic medicine,
childhood development, home economics, culinary arts and botany earned by life experience. That degree was about stepping up to accept my responsibility to follow in her footsteps and pass something on. Thank you, Grandma,
for your legacy.
-Jerilyn Upton Sanders