Black student athletes at Harvard formed a group to create a mutual support system and to promote inclusion at the College against a backdrop of a national racial reckoning.
Students founded the group, the Harvard Athletics Black Varsity Association, late this summer in response to the murders of Black men and women — including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — at the hands of police and the ensuing protest movements.
Though racial unrest served as the immediate impetus for the group’s formation, Annika Bassey ’22, one of the group’s founders and chairs, said she had previously wanted to create such a space at Harvard.
Bassey, who is a member of the women’s tennis team, said that, as a freshman, she had difficulty meeting other Black athletes at Harvard. Bassey is one of two Black athletes on a team of 13.
“It seemed like a common feeling between, among all the Black athletes,” she said. “There wasn’t really a space for us to meet and actually hang out and get to know each other across different teams.”
She was reminded of that concern over the summer when there was “no group for us to mourn together.”
Director of Strength and Conditioning James L. Frazier, who advises the group, said a dedicated space for Black athletes will help them “understand that they’re not alone.”
“If I’m the only person of color on a team, there might not be other people who share my viewpoint, since I might actually have some complications that might be arising due to my color,” Frazier said.
Bassey’s coach, Traci L. Green, said she was eager to advise and help launch the new student organization, which the athletics department co-sponsored.
“I share a lot of commonalities with many of our students at Harvard, particularly our student-athletes,” she said. “Just talking to them, getting a sense of them, whether we’d be eating in Eliot Dining Hall, and we just started talking. Again, there was a true sense of the need for this organization in a positive way, for a sense of community and belonging and things of that nature.”
Green, who is the only Black female head coach at Harvard and one of a handful in the entire Ivy League, said she relates to Black athletes’ experience.
“On a personal level, growing up and playing often in predominantly white sports, and attending and navigating in predominantly white spaces in high school and in college, that pretty much gives me a unique perspective to sort of help and guide our student-athletes along,” she said.
Some Black athletes also said the organization will serve purposes existing Black student organizations do not.
Bassey said her athletics schedule made it difficult to routinely participate in events hosted by Black student organizations. The Black Varsity Association also encourages Harvard affiliates regardless of their race or athletic ability to participate in the group’s events.
By engaging Harvard affiliates across a broad spectrum in conversations about racism, the group hopes to mitigate harmful stereotypes about Black student athletes.
“When you take into account that you’re not only a Black student, but you’re also an athlete, that’s kind of like a double negative, especially being at an Ivy League institution,” Sharelle Samuel ’22, a chair of the group and member of the women’s track and field team, said. “You feel like, ‘Dang, I’m really out here with almost two disadvantages from the start.’”
Men’s soccer player Ben F. Bryant ’22 said he joined the group because he felt frustrated by criticism of athletes’ participation in anti-racist activism over the summer.
“There’s always this kind of relation between the athlete as a commodity and the athlete as a person,” he said. “What’s great about BVA is that it connects us both on the level of our Blackness, but also that we are athletes, and we’re going through the same grind together, and our frustrations of being limited in what we can do personally are very similar.”
In addition to developing relationships across teams, Black athletes in the group will serve as mentors and mentees. They will involve Black alumni of Harvard Athletics in their group, and they also plan to advise Black elementary school students in the greater Boston area, public health guidelines permitting.
Brian A. Cromwell, Jr. ’23, a member of the football team, said he is excited to form relationships with young Black athletes outside of Harvard.
“The main point of this is to give younger students some kind of guidance, and also show them that Harvard is an attainable goal,” he said. “It’s really important for communities of color to have role models, and people to look up to. And just having conversations with these kids, we think we could have an impact.”
—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.