When Dr. Claudine Gay resigned from the presidency of Harvard University, my phone lit up with phone call and texts. The callers and texters included Black women academics, Black professional women, Black male academics, and the like. Reeling with emotion from profound sadness to explosive anger, we had been watching a tried-and-true hallmark of American racial oppression—a public lynching.
Even though this type of lynching did not involve a rope and a tree, or fire or bullet, there was an attack on a Black woman’s personhood, and then paraded in public domain for all to see. Claudine Gay is physically alive to live out her future, largely in ways that she chooses. But Black folks heard the message loud and clear – Claudine Gay had gone a step too far. She was a Black woman, a Haitian-American Black woman, at the helm of the world’s wealthiest, and arguably most prestigious, university. And that simply could not stand. At least not for long.
As an alumna of Harvard University, I was among hundreds of other people who stood in the pouring rain to watch the inauguration of Dr. Claudine Gay as president of Harvard University. Dr. Gay referenced the enslaved Africans who were a part of Harvard’s history, notable Black alumni and a vision that would open wider the doors and resources of Harvard to a global community. Dr. Gay stood between an ignominious history and an expansive future. The former is a common thread running through America’s universities; the latter dares to challenge the exclusivity of elite education. In short, with her vision and her embodiment, Dr. Claudine Gay broke a centuries-old unspoken code of racist America – she failed to know her place.
And for that, she experienced aggression unlike anything that Black academics had seen before. African American literary scholar Koritha Mitchell poignantly describes “know-your-place” aggression as the “flexible, dynamic array of forces that answer the achievements of marginalized groups such that their success brings aggression as often as praise.” Mitchell continues, “Any progress by those who are not straight, white, and male is answered by a backlash of violence—both literal and symbolic, both physical and discursive—that essentially says, know your place!” Coupled with the misogynoir of anti-Blackness and sexism that is directed towards Black women, the backlash ensued.
From the corners of a congressional hearing that, at its best, refused to engage the complexities of politics, policies and human behavior by demanding yes and no answers in one-minute time spans … to so-called liberal media sources largely unfamiliar with the workings of academe discussing plagiarism charges, Dr. Gay was intentionally tried in the court of public opinion. Long before the Harvard Corporation announced Gay’s resignation with notes that she had received “racist vitriol” in the form of emails and phone calls, most Black folks surmised that there were threats. Dr. Gay confirmed this in her New York Times Op-Ed, “What Happened at Harvard is Bigger Than Me.” Her sentence, “I’ve been called the N-word more times than I can count” reveals the deeply racialized nature of these attacks.
African Americans know a lynching when we see one. Even when we can’t name it, we can feel it in our bones. This home-grown American terrorism is a common narrative in African American lives. I know few Black descendants of the U.S. slavery system who don’t have a story of lynching in their family – even if it’s related to the northward migration because a family member sought to avoid lynching. We know that we must “know our place” or we will be lynched.
A lynching is more than an extra-judicial killing; it is a public spectacle designed to send a message. From the 1830s to the 1950s and 60s, ragtag mobs of whites killed African Americans for the smallest of real or perceived infractions. The message was that this “N-word” had become too uppity, stepped out of place and would be punished. The unabashedly public nature of lynching is designed to send a resounding warning to the Black community that theirs will be a similar fate if they dare to challenge white institutional power. There is a disgusting cruelty to lynching. Indeed, it was commonplace during the Jim Crow era for white families to treat public lynchings of blacks as festive occasions. Families literally packed snacks, sat outside, and watched the brutal destruction of a Black life as if they were at a carnival show. They even took pictures of these events, created postcards, and gleefully sent them to friends and family.
And this is what we’ve seen happening to Dr. Claudine Gay. We witnessed a public spectacle designed to remove Dr. Claudine Gay from the Harvard University presidency. Like historic lynching, this one required the cooperation of government, media and financial forces. And this too took place in a historical and cultural context – as part of a larger zeitgeist against liberal education, the accurate teaching of U.S. history and inclusivity. And after Dr. Gay’s resignation, the leaders of these attacks publicly took a victory lap of pride in what they were able to accomplish.
This lynching sent the message it was ostensibly designed to send. As Harvard junior Tommy Barone so poignantly explains in an interview with The New York Times: “Her resigning would be dangerous and set a precedent for higher education that would signal that with enough resources and commitment, powerful people can cow universities into making fundamental decisions about their structure.” The precedence being set is not just about university decision-making processes; it’s a precedent of what these powerful people will do to other Black women in significant leadership positions.
Of course, Black women and men will continue to be excellent in their fields and capable of leadership. But will university boards and others in appointing positions put forward Black leadership? Will they support and proactively defend Black leaders with full knowledge of the kinds of attacks that will ensue? Or will they enable these mobs by buckling to threats to their reputations and finances?
Monica A. Coleman is a religion scholar specializing in American philosophical traditions, liberation theologies and African American religions. She is currently Professor of Africana Studies and John and Patricia Cochran Scholar of Inclusive Excellence at University of Delaware. She is the author or editor of six books including “Making a Way Out of No Way: a Womanist Theology.”