Dialectic (di-uh-lektiks). Name.
The first time I saw this word, tucked under the third week of the syllabus of one of my classes last semester, I was confused – a state I often found myself in during my freshman year at Harvard College. According to Google, dialectics is defined as “the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions”, with a secondary definition being “the investigation of metaphysical contradictions and their solutions”.
Two very different entities that are inextricably linked in constant conflict, but ultimately coexist to form a single truth. The paradoxical nature of the term immediately captured my attention. For days, despite my best efforts, my mind inevitably returned to the concept of dialectics. It was incredibly close to my home.
In many ways, my mere existence as a black woman at Harvard is a constant game of dialectics.
As an ambitious high school student, Harvard was part of fairy tales. Its elusive prestige filled my mind with visions of old white men in suits huddled in dark rooms and smoking cigars as they plotted the future of civilization. Meanwhile, I sat on the living room floor banging SZA while my sister carefully untied my braids. Harvard was unlike anything that could exist in the same universe as mine.
Then, in December 2020, I was accepted – and my mind refused to understand it. For years, I had placed this institution on an inaccessible pedestal from which it despised almost everyone else, including me. I felt unworthy of my place, unsure how I could fit into the Ivy League culture that was soon to surround me.
Nevertheless, August arrived and I worked hard through the grueling course registration process. Determined to embrace the spirit of exploration for my freshman year, I had even decided, as an inveterate humanities student, to take a science course – an intriguing mix of primatology and linguistics. Every Monday and Wednesday at 3 p.m., I took a rickety vintage elevator to the fifth floor of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology and had fun discussions about whether monkeys could talk.
But one day, while mindlessly browsing The Crimson’s website, I came across an article from earlier in the year about the discovery of possible slave remains on campus – and the cover photo of it. story made me sick to my stomach. The same building I scanned twice a week stared shamelessly at me from my laptop screen. The red brick no longer looked rustic charm, but stained with the blood of my ancestors. I would never be able to enjoy my new vintage elevator rides again without the weird curiosity weighing on me that somewhere along the way I passed the displaced remains of my ancestors – subjugated in life, and still not guaranteed peace and rest in death.
Moments like these constantly remind me of my position as an outsider to this unequivocally white planet. I am a descendant of slaves taking a class in the building of a historically white institution that houses the possible remains of 15 people of African descent who were likely alive during American slavery.
My academic experience will be perpetually shaped by these terrors of the past, as well as the need to struggle with my own complicity in the present. As an African American woman from generation to generation, my family history has always been a giant question mark. Centuries ago, my ancestors were uprooted from their homeland and separated across the land during chattel slavery; today I have to reckon with the gaping hole it left in my soul. Even so, I exist at a university that can easily access its own history – but chooses not to prioritize its accurate narrative and reconciliation. Or the story of the people who suffered at his expense.
Parallel narratives, trapped in endless conflict at opposite ends of the same orbit. A dialectical masterpiece, and my current nightmarish reality.
Each of these two narratives at Harvard — black womanhood and white supremacy — must occur in tandem. In order to grasp the full truth about this university, we must come to grips with the fact that whiteness and patriarchy are violently and inextricably linked to its history. Harvard must realize that knowledge of its history is a sacred, often underestimated privilege that must be exercised with proper respect.
Therefore, to be a black woman at Harvard is to exist as a walking paradox: a living, breathing revolution. The dialectic of my existence – and that of all other black women in this institution – means forming a vibrant community of love and resilience amid the generations of hate piled against us, and boldly demanding the elevation of our truth in a veritas that was never intended to include us in the first place.
Mariah M. Norman ’25 lives in Thayer Hall.
This piece is part of a focus on black authors and experiences for Black History Month.