Home2017-2018Harlem and higher education: Breaking out from the margins

Harlem and higher education: Breaking out from the margins

By Melissa Legaria Cisneros
Guest Writer

Through the Colloquium Student Research Grant I was able to do archival work at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. My research focuses on the history of the Harlem Renaissance and how this can be applied to our school in light of the 175th anniversary of Willamette University. My findings are outlined in a series of three articles in which I examine the role of space in resilience, the threats that these spaces face and how people with marginalized identities have reclaimed space. This research touches on themes of empowerment and solidarity with the intent of furthering a conversation about resilience and to acknowledge the existence of students with marginalized identities on campus.


Space as Resilience: Crafting a Home for People With Marginalized Identities

“I love America [the U.S.] more than any other country in this world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

James Baldwin, a resident of Harlem, exemplifies my upbringing in the U.S. It took me a while to fully understand how and why I felt the way I did when someone questioned my “loyalty” to a country that had turned its back on me more than once. People like Baldwin have helped me understand the privilege of receiving the education that I have while also struggling to feel welcomed when the person down my hall writes racist remarks on our community dry erase board. It’s hard to forgive or heal when, time and again, people degrade my existence and value. My reality is to always question if the way I am treated is because of the way I look.

When we celebrated the 175th anniversary of Willamette, members of the University were asked to reflect on its history. Through my research I do just that; reflect on WU’s past while looking to the Harlem Renaissance as a movement to further our understanding of how space can be a form of resilience. As part of this anniversary, we were told by the University that “continuing to strengthen Willamette as an inclusive place allows the community to move forward together with students as our priority.” We, the students, are the priority of this institution. So, as a community of students, faculty and admin, I ask: are we working collectively to foster and set an example of “ inclusivity and tolerance?” It is stated in WU’s mission statement that by receiving an education from WU, we become prepared “to transform knowledge into action and lead lives of achievement, contribution and meaning.” My research is an example of one of the many ways we can approach WU’s mission to its students.

To fully understand the importance of the Harlem Renaissance, a time where various forms of self-expression flourished, one must first understand its history. It’s important to note that the Harlem as we know it did not appear overnight. There were many events beforehand that led to a growing population of black people in northern New York City.


Physical Harlem

Like many stories of resilience, Harlem became a central location for engagement on the hardship of people with marginalized identities. Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, a curator, managed to preserve the history of the Harlem Renaissance. He created a collection that became what today is known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Last summer, I was able to go to Schomburg, and it has been one of the most valuable experiences in my life. It’s one thing to read about amazing human beings in textbooks and it’s another thing to get to actually see their handwriting and trains of thought. I was able to go through various archives such as the “Voices from the Renaissance” collection by David Levering Lewis that explained what people during the Harlem Renaissance were thinking. I read about how their happiness to be in Harlem existed while facing manipulation and subjugation at the hands of men like Carl Van Vechten, a white man who profited from the experience of black people by publishing his book, N***** Heaven. I also got to look at images that were taken of Harlem during the Renaissance.

All of this was created in the midst of subjugation. So how do you go about crafting a home when those who are making the decisions do not face the same obstacles and oppression?


Metaphorical Harlem

Black men were thought of as rude in the North because they did not greet people in the streets. W.E.B. Du Bois, a leading sociologist at the time, made a significant note: “They had learned in the South to avoid any form of interaction, especially with white women, because eye contact could lead to violent retaliation.” The Harlem Renaissance was a time period in which black people fought oppression by creating metaphorical space for various modes of self-expression.  

In Harlem, you saw engagement from various perspectives with the goal of uplifting and celebrating black culture. Literal and artistic forms of expression bloomed during this time. Novelists, poets, essayists, artists,and musicians all gathered to express their views. People, like Langston Hughes fought oppression with the excellence of their art while others fought, by banding together in protest. At the end of the day, it was a time for people to write from their own experience. Publications such as “Opportunity” and “The Crisis” were also seen as a way to build a bridge for black culture to reach white audiences.



People with marginalized identities, in the U.S., have had to find ways to survive inequity. The people in Harlem crafted a community, which inspired work that celebrated their shared identity. The Harlem Renaissance shows that these spaces are necessary to survive the constant battles that people with marginalized identities are forced to deal with.

I was privileged to step foot in a space like contemporary Harlem, witness the gentrification, and be able to leave after having gathered the information I needed. It became my responsibility to ensure that I didn’t further perpetuate the injustices in Harlem.

These past 175 years of WU have consisted of both change and preservation. As we move forward, it’s essential to ensure that people with marginalized identities on campus are able to thrive and exist at a predominantly white institution. By remembering WU’s history, we minimize the risk of repeating injustices and ensuring that proper change does not happen at such a slow pace. By recognizing WU’s history, we acknowledge all the work that has been done by those before us, especially women and/or queer people of color, to have spaces like the Student Center for Equity and Empowerment (E&E). Change is a collaborative effort, and it shouldn’t fall on those who are in need of space to be the only ones advocating. There are ways to help, and it’s one’s responsibility to actively learn how to be in solidarity with people with marginalized identities.

Photos courtesy of Melissa Legaria Cisneros

Space for People with Marginalized Identities Contested

From Harlem to WU these spaces continue to be threatened by co-optation and white fragility. In 1920, white people began to infiltrate the nightlife of Harlem to enjoy what they believed was “exotic” entertainment. Almost a century later, in 2007, there was a rise of “ghetto-fab parties” in the U.S. These college parties were a result of a greater movement that believes whiteness is threatened by the actions of those who aren’t white. Willamette University was not the exception, guest columnist Kari Bassett wrote in The Collegian about an incident that happened in 2006. During a Halloween party, members of the WU community dressed in overtly offensive costumes representing the KKK and Hitler, and called it  “The Most Offensive Halloween Party.”

Across two different time periods, we see how white communities will diminish the existence of people with marginalized identities. Spaces like the E&E are also threatened by the rhetoric of white fragility. This threat is further compromised by the idea that the E&E should be a place where others can come and learn about different cultures. I think back to Harlem and how black people displayed black sensitivity, intelligence and artistic versatility, all of which was laid open for white people to see. More than a hundred years later, the white supremacist ideology persists.

A student’s first year in college is already a challenge: leaving home, financial expenses and adapting to the curriculum. On top of that, you are tokenized and othered in a white institution. The E&E soon became a space where I could go and take a break from the rest of campus. I have the space that is necessary to regain the energy to continue my journey in college. This past school year, a newly renovated space was created for the E&E. A space better equipped to serve a population that has been present on the Willamette campus for a very long time. I’m happy to study in this place and to be around those who value and remind me of my importance on campus.

These spaces of resilience, the E&E vs. Schomburg, function in different ways. I went to a research center which is a space meant for others and me to learn. Schomburg preserves history and makes it accessible to others, while the E&E is a space for students with marginalized identities to find resources, form support networks and build community. The E&E is a space created by students and for students with the intent to be empowered.

In Harlem, black people were unable to celebrate their own culture because the price to enter a club was too high or because of de jure segregation. The Cotton Club, a white-owned business, catered to a white audience. Moreover, space like The Cotton Club forced bars and clubs to go out of business because they could not compete. People of color no longer had a space to enjoy themselves. Spaces in which one can celebrate their various identities and cultures are important because it’s a form of resilience from oppression, and these spaces must be protected so that they can continue to serve their purpose of empowerment.


Reclaiming Space on Campus

In “Ebony & Ivy,” one learns that through slavery, universities had a huge contribution to building the U.S. into a thriving nation. Doing archival research was never something I thought I would do in college. Yet, not feeling like I belong in my science class from day one or feeling like there is a pin following me as I walk around campus quickly became exhausting. I needed to delve deeper into the feeling I have when I’m on campus and so I spent a whole summer learning a history that has not been taught in any of my regular classes.

By reading the poems of Helene Johnson, I got to see the theories of Lisa A. Flores and Gloria Anzaldúa come to life. Flores, in her article “Creating Discursive Space Through a Rhetoric of Difference: Chicana Feminists Craft a Homeland” teaches us that Chicana feminists have no discursive space of their own but are instead forced to live in between borders. Like Flores, Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera shows us that Chicanas exist by crossing borders in which one must be a part of multiple linguistic and cultural contexts. Johnson, a product of both a public and Ivy League education, wrote poems that showed she lived in between borders. She focused her writing on her racial heritage as a black woman in higher education.

Spaces like the E&E function as a place for those who are forced to live in between borders in a predominantly white university. These spaces function so that people who are oppressed are able to find empowerment and be part of a central community rather than live on the margins. It’s also more than a physical construct; there is a metaphorical linkage to these spaces through discourse with the purpose of turning space into a home.

My presence in contemporary Harlem and the archival research I did has allowed me to see the changes that have occurred in the past 100 years, and to see that some things that haven’t changed. I saw that the small collection of Schomburg in the 1900’s has now become a research center that serves the community. I also witnessed the gentrification and homelessness in Harlem. These spaces are complex, and many variables create and contest their existence. Nonetheless, there are people in Harlem who are passionate about their history and the need to preserve it. For example, during my visit, Schomburg had workshops for the community to learn how to do archival research and displayed exhibitions about race and gender.

Understanding the history of Harlem and higher education has shaped my resilience at a white institution. I take up space by existing while acknowledging that there are still obstacles I have to overcome. I also realize that there is a whole history of student activism on this campus, but WU archives have only been able to preserve a limited amount. It’s everybody’s responsibility to actively ensure that history doesn’t continue to repeat itself and that in the process we don’t forget to center the voices of those who are forced to live in the margins.



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