There is no anguish like leaving a space not because you want to, but because you must.
To so many Black women, the attack on Dr. Claudine Gay and her resignation from Harvard University was frustrating, upsetting and sickening. However, it was neither shocking nor surprising.
For Black women who have been hired as a new leader within an institution tasked with bringing bright ideas, big vision, and lofty goals, we have seen this story play out – and sometimes in our own lives.
I am a Black woman physician who also had to leave academia (and a health system), albeit under different circumstances, but for the same underlying reason: To protect my mind, body and soul. My concern is why Black women keep ending up in these situations.
Yes, there is a dire need for practices and initiatives that shift institutions, especially spaces that shape our learning, to reflect the diversity that exists in the United States. However, the question is, when a Black woman is hired, what is the depth of the shift that these institutions truly desire? I believe the majority are interested in leveraging our bodies to shift the appearance of their organizations as diverse but are not invested in engaging our minds to guide the deep and difficult work of truly becoming justice-centered.
This should not be a surprise. We must be hyperaware that when we enter institutions like Harvard, we are entering into a space that was literally founded and grown through anti-Black injustice, racism and trauma.
In 2022, the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, led by Tomiko Brown-Nagin, uncovered how wealthy donors poured funds into Harvard earned through slave trading and slavery-dependent businesses, such as Caribbean sugar and Southern cotton. This accounted for more than a third of the funds donated or pledged to Harvard in the first half of the 19th century and allowed Harvard to grow to its national stature.
Given this backdrop of racism, it is not surprising that open sexist remarks from previous Harvard presidents, like Lawrence Summers, never placed their leadership in jeopardy. Yet the interpretation of Dr. Gay’s response to remarks was enough to create a congressional hearing.
As I think about the historic moment that Dr. Gay’s appointment represented, I have mixed feelings. There is the pride of seeing another Black woman move into leadership in such a high-profile position. In the words of Sonia Sanchez, the question that lingers in my mind is, “How does this free us?”
This situation causes me to reevaluate the truly historic moment. I propose that the historic moment was when Dr. Gay resigned, after putting in over a decade of her scholarship into Harvard. Perhaps this is the moment when she can finally reflect on the events of the past several weeks, including the unrelenting attempts to devalue, disrespect and dismiss her career and work.
In my experience, when we, as Black women, leave these spaces due to trauma, we are forever changed. We are often emboldened after recognizing that no amount of assimilation, accolades or acquiescence will ever protect us.
I may be in the minority when I say that I am not worried, saddened or angered by what has happened. Why? Those who think they can exploit and extract our intelligence within institutions, and then quickly erase Black women from the narrative are sadly mistaken. You have unleashed our fire.
The long journey that Dr. Claudine Gay accomplished in her work has not ended. In fact, she was likely limited by Harvard. Her most impactful journey is yet to come. All of us who have exited organizations that were too small to contain us in the first place will be watching.
In the words of James Baldwin, “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.”
Dr. Omolara Thomas Uwemedimo is a physician and co-founder of Strong Children Wellness.
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