Trymaine Lee is a Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award-winning journalist who is a correspondent for MSNBC and host of the podcast, Into America. On the podcast, he covers social justice issues and the role of race, violence, politics and law enforcement in America.
This interview covers the “Ebony & Ivy” episode.
During the Fall 2021 semester at Harvard College, Lee had the opportunity to be a resident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. Throughout his time there, Lee sat down with students across the African diaspora to discuss the nuances of being Black at Harvard.
Harvard has an extensive history with slavery and white supremacy. The institution has said that it is committed to addressing its legacy of enslavement. But, it is estimated that less than a third of its Black students have ancestors who were enslaved in the United States, aka generational African-Americans.
We discuss with Lee on what he discovered from Black students during his time there, how the college’s history with slavery affected its Black population, what it means to be a generational African-American and other great topics.
CleverMade Collapsible Storage Bins
Lightweight yet heavy duty
Good storage bins are essential for keeping your home or office organized and clutter-free. These are versatile, collapsible containers that come in various shapes and sizes that also stack together.
To stay up to date with Lee and the Into America podcast follow them both on Twitter at @trymainelee and @intoamericapod.
Into America drops an episode every Thursday and is available wherever you get your podcasts.
Q: Why did you decide to take this fellowship at Harvard? What did you hope to get out of it?
A few years ago, a good friend of mine was a fellow with the Institute of Politics with the Kennedy School at Harvard. I was invited as a guest of hers. Once I got on campus, I arrived with some preconceived notions. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, and I just had these ideas. But then when I got there, and I spent time with her students, I realized there was this huge population at Harvard of Black and brown students, in particular, who were just hungry and thirsty to connect with Black professionals and mentors.
So I spent a bunch of hours with these students. Obviously, they were all bright and brilliant, but they’re also just so eager to learn and they just want to soak everything up. I’m like, man, this program is amazing. So when they reached out to me about being a part of the program, it was a no-brainer. I wanted to take that flame that my friend had already lit and continue to move forward and expand the space and try to go to campus and create a community around the classes and workshops that I was teaching. But even moreso I really wanted to tap in and pour into these young students who as brilliant as they may be, are often arriving on this campus, the OG of historic white institutions, feeling imposter syndrome or othered by the institution, despite the fact that they had the acumen and brilliance and intelligence to handle themselves in that space. A lot of them feel disconnected. So I wanted to go there and just pour as much of myself as I could into these students and provide them a workshop and classes that would help them expand their understanding of our society, our culture, and again, the world in which they kind of operate in.
Q: Was there hesitancy among the students to open up to you? Or was it an instant connection with students?
It was an instant connection. I think that they felt my genuine desire to connect with them. I gave a lot of my time myself to these students, but also in the weekly study groups, many students said, it was like the one place where they felt they could be their whole selves—without judgment, without a critical eye. My classes would be 98% Black and brown, sometimes less. And I wasn’t going to judge them. I was going to give them space and hold space for them to articulate how they feel, and what they think and be honest, in their critique, and engaging with the institution. It’s not as if all of these kids arrived on campus, coming from places where they had a silver spoon in their mouths. Some did, but even those students, seeing how engaged they were with their blackness at this PWI was just such an amazing experience.
Q: One of the terms that I heard when listening to this episode was “generational African-Americans.” Can you explain what that is? Was that something you knew prior to you arriving at Harvard? Or was that something you learned when you got there?
Generational African-Americans. I had never heard that term before. I think a lot of us in recent years have been talking about the American descendants of slaves or the Black American descendants of enslaved people, those of us who descend from chattel slavery, people who have been here for generations. So I had already kind of thought about this idea in a framework of academia, where sometimes in the name of diversity, these institutions will open the gate for a bunch of Black folks, from other countries, who aren’t generational. Who are not descendants of enslaved people on this continent. So I was always wrestling with that idea, whether it’s a ploy, whether it’s authentic, whether it’s a structural thing, how we arrived at some of these institutions where the vast majority of Black people on these campuses are not American born. It’s obvious as soon as you’re on campus, you realize that so few of the Black people on campus are generational.
Q: Why is it important to have that distinction? Some people would argue “aren’t we all Black?”
I think we have a couple of frames of thought with this right? On one hand, if you have Pan Africanist Inklings, that red, Black and green mean something to us, right? We are all connected, whether you were enslaved in Jamaica or you were a slave in Georgia, we are all descendants of Africans. We’re all victims of empire and colonization. So there’s that one frame of thought we are all in this like our shared struggle is a shared struggle. But we’re thinking in terms of an American kind of construct and this conversation about what is owed to Black Americans who’ve been here and poured our blood and sweat and put our bones in the soil to grow America and built everything for free. We were the value in this country and the currency. What is owed to us who have a direct tie to the system of enslavement. So I think in that conversation, about reparations, and who is owed what, I think there is a distinction there. Because when you hear institutions and again, not even picking on Harvard, picking an American institution, all of them almost have these connections that are bolstered by enslavement. I think it is an important conversation to figure out who is owed and what is owed. So I think it depends on which conversation we’re having and it was having the conversation, but I think it is an important conversation because if institutions are going to say, hey, “we’re gonna try to address the sins of our past,” but then not offer any remedy to those who’ve been, you know, violated by those things directly, then what are you actually doing? And again, that doesn’t, that doesn’t take anything away from a Jamaican seeking readdress from the British government, because Jamaica was a colony of Britain. All of the conversations we could have, globally. But I think in this specific context, it does matter for that conversation.
Q: In this episode, you talked to Professor Camille Z. Charles from the University of Pennsylvania. She talks about how these universities aren’t keeping track of who is and who isn’t a generational African-American? Do they not see the benefit in it? Is there something else going on? Or are they just ignorant?
I don’t know if I know for sure. It could be any number of things, it could be that, that they don’t care, right, and that they’re kind of opaque and their understanding of Blackness or their understanding of it is limited. Where it’s like, Black and Black is Black. But you have to imagine that in some of these spaces that some folks know better and perhaps they don’t want to open that can of worms, because then we’ll be having conversations like this very complicated, tricky conversations, that no matter which way you did puts the onus back on them, they might not want to do that. But also, they’re probably is a legitimate argument for the relevance of it. Like some of us want to understand the true complexity of the way Blackness is experienced on these campuses, whether it’s Black American, Black Caribbean or Black African, we want to understand just how all these different facets of blackness are being experienced on these campuses. But perhaps organizations also like for what? What do we get out of that? If they want to better understand, some of them are being clear their mission is actually to help Black Americans. They’re not always necessarily saying that. I mean, some of it is implied. You think about the so-called racial reckoning that went through and everyone was eager to like unpack and understand connections to slavery and the systemic structural nature of oppression and all that stuff. But then when you’re on campus, you’re like Black? I don’t know, right? It’s like, the students, right? It’s limited. So I don’t know if I know the answer. Who knows.
Q: What were some of the most appalling findings of Harvard’s history with slavery, and white supremacy?
I don’t think there was anything that was uncovered that we didn’t already understand, generally. These white-American institutions, from banking to colleges, to insurance companies, all had their hands all over Black bodies, literally and figuratively, right? That the institution of slavery was critical, not just to their formation, but their sustenance, right. You think about Georgetown University, which actually sold enslaved people to hold on to the campus. You think about Harvard University, where, some of the children of slaveholders were arriving on campus, sometimes bringing their enslaved with them. Many faculty members were bringing their slaves to campus to live (with them) during the semesters. But I think there are individual stories. At Harvard, for example, they found remains of students they believe to have been enslaved people on this campus. Some of those bones are now being housed in a building where students actually have to go in and take classes. So you fully understand that Black people in this country, the kind of visceral thing that does to inside your gut, as you’re also dealing with, should I be here? We deserve to be here, but do we want to be here? Do they respect me? All those things, and then the bodies, the remains of what could be your ancestors are on display for studying? So I don’t know if there’s one appalling thing, but it just reinforces just how complicit white society, white institutions have been in not just slavery, but all of the forms of violence that happened after. So I think it’s just something that we, as Americans have sometimes buried, definitely mythologized and lied about and hidden. But I think when you understand the nature of where we actually are, none of this stuff should be a surprise. But I think what is surprising is that we’re still learning the extent of it like there is no depth. Like it just keeps going and going. I think that’s a surprise, but otherwise, nothing necessarily shocking.
Q: In this episode, you spoke to three students, two of them are women. How did that intersectionality of being a Black woman and being a generational African-American or not affect their experience at Harvard?
The one thing that we didn’t get into too much in the episode, but what I gleaned from these young people, was how gender was experienced within the Black community, less so with a white Professor seeing a Black woman. But how these students’ antennas are already tuned up culturally and historically. So they’re also having conversations around gender and the interaction between young Black men and young Black women on this campus. Those were some of the most charged conversations that I had, that sometimes even within that space, the women didn’t always feel a sense of safety within the community. Which I don’t think is specific to Black people. Certainly, there are white women and women of other colors who don’t experience safety also in their communities. But I think the thing was like engaging these young students like it’s such a small number, is there this cohesion? Is there unity? Where are our students building with each other? And where are there still barriers? Some of those barriers could be generational versus immigrant, right? Their religious thing, but also gender was what they were still trying to wrestle with. There have been some pretty high-profile allegations against some pretty popular students in leadership positions. There were issues of sexual assault and harassment. That was one space that I wish I would have been able to spend more time engaging. It’s just the nature of it and time, but it was fraught. But even within the broader, community, especially the Black folks that we need to have more conversations about how gender is experienced, and are we replicating, the kind of broader societal violence against women? Yeah, it was interesting.
Q: One of the things you were able to touch on was the economical backgrounds of these students. Many of the immigrant Black students came from a better economic background than the generational African-American students. How did that affect these students’ experience at Harvard?
It was very layered because you have, as you mentioned, we have a look at some of the history, there’s, there’s some diversity visa program, through the 70s, 80s and 90s. And I believe it just ended under the Trump administration. But basically, there were a certain set of visas set aside for highly educated immigrants, who had high-level skills and different fields. The vast majority of those visas were given to African immigrants. So African immigrants were the most highly educated of immigrants. So you have all these doctors and lawyers and trained physicians and scientists and engineers, and like everybody was coming. So a lot of their children are who we’re talking about here came from a relatively privileged background, overseas, and then arrived here, and many of them, you know, found their footing here as well. And I think, in some of these students arriving, might have felt some sort of class alignment with some white folks. Then there’s the issue of blackness in America. So now compared to their working-class, or poorer counterparts, who happen to be Black-American or Black immigrants, there is a gulf there. But then there is also a gulf between those who might have some class identity with, but the blackness is in the way. But now, when it comes to the inner community stuff, it’s not just limited to those Black immigrants, there are a lot of the Black students there who have houses in Martha’s Vineyard, who come from money and then you have students who, many might be surprised, there are a lot of young Black students there who come from real working-class and poor backgrounds, who worked their asses off. So there are definitely those class distinctions. I talked to some generational Black students who come from working-class backgrounds, who really feel isolated because they’re not from the generation of money. They’re not from immigrant money. They’re from, the salt of the black earth. They come from communities that aren’t as privileged aren’t as resourced, don’t have the academic pipeline into places like Harvard, or those private feeder schools. There’s a whole network of high schools that are feeder schools to the Ivy League that also have a pipeline into a lot of these schools, and a lot of these students don’t come from communities with that infrastructure. So class stuff is as fraught as race. Not to make it seem like Harvard is this particular kind of ecosystem, even though it is, but it’s replicated all across the country and we see that kind of fraught nature of layered identity. Class, race and economic.
Q: You mention how a majority of the Black students on campus come from immigrant families. Is that something that is unique to Ivy League schools and not predominately white institutions? Is the Black experience unique because it is Harvard?
From my understanding from research and interviews, the Ivy League is like PWI on steroids. Historical steroids, economic steroids, and resource steroids. Harvard is the oldest college in the country and from my understanding, it’s one of the oldest corporations in this country, founded before America was America. So it’s early in the game. So they’re pulling from a specific kind of general demographic anyway, a lot of structural issues here. The Ivy League is in strata of its own.
But also I want to make one thing clear because I think we need to have these conversations with great sensitivity. I don’t know if we need to sow more division, I think we need more unity. But I think specific conversations need a certain kind of engagement and critique. Whether you were enslaved in Georgia, or enslaved in Martinique somewhere or enslaved anywhere else or colonized, in what is now known as Nigeria, or the Ivory Coast, that we’re still experiencing the cousins of the same kind of oppression and think we need to be clear about that. So I think we have to be very careful with the way we’re having conversations. Are they adding to our understanding of ourselves, and what’s required to make amends for the past and holding these institutions to account? Or is it just handicapping us in some way?
Q: There’s always been this argument on Black Twitter between Black students about HBCUs versus PWIs. HBCUs are catered towards Black students and their experiences. Why should Black students even consider going to Ivy League institutions that weren’t historically created for them?
We’ve had some of these conversations, and I think that it’s certainly an individual choice. These conversations are important to have because we’re trying to find ways to survive and elevate in America. I’m in a household where my wife went to Southern University, an HBCU, and I went to a mostly white state school in South Jersey. We know that some of these institutions have never wanted us on their campuses, and in some ways may continue to not want us on their campuses. We should have the right to be and exist in all spaces. Say MIT has a race issue, but they are the best engineering program in this country and you want to be an engineer and you can get into the best engineering program in the country, you’re probably considering it and you should be able to do that. But then the other side of that we have to think of it as a community, are we subjecting ourselves or our children to harm?
I have a daughter who’s nine years old and we’re already having these conversations. Again, I want it to very much be her decision where she goes, but would I want to subject my child’s self-esteem, or self-worth or value for the sake of academic growth or success, I don’t know. On the other hand, many of us have been brainwashed to think that institutions associated with blackness are inherently inferior. There are a lot of people who are brainwashed into thinking that they can’t go to an HBCU because it offers an inferior education.
But I think we should be we should be able to exist in all spaces. Students don’t want to feel attacked for making the choice that they made. I met some young people who I believe will be mentees forever now. They were so cool, open-minded and smart. They’re just wrestling with what it means to be Black at an Ivy League, but the same way we have to wrestle being Black in America, Black in media. The conversation about whether you work for a mainstream organization, or you work for, you know, just a Black outlet, right? Whether you work for The Root or MSNBC. These conversations aren’t going anywhere.