"The (Mis)Education of Black Harvard: The fight for African American studies 1963" by Sydney Lewis ‘22

Sydney stands against a column holding her completed thesis smiling at the camera.Senior Thesis Spotlight with Sydney Lewis ‘22

Interview conducted by Santy Mendoza ‘23

Sydney Lewis '22 (she/hers) is a senior in Quincy House studying African-American Studies and History of Science with a secondary in Astrophysics and language citation in Spanish. She is from Jacksonville, FL and was inspired to intern at the Harvard Foundation to help make Harvard more accountable to its students of color. Outside of the Harvard Foundation, she is Co-President of the Harvard Undergraduate Black Health Advocates and does research for the Harvard and Legacy of Slavery Initiative. In her free time you can find her roller skating, running a fashion blog, looking at the night sky, and petting every dog that crosses her path.


Santy: Can you give a quick introduction of yourself?

Sydney: I'm Sydney Lewis a senior studying a joint concentration in African American studies and history, science, and a secondary and astrophysics with a citation in Spanish.

Santy: What’s the title of your thesis? 

Sydney: My thesis is titled (Mis)Education of black Harvard: The fight for African American studies 1963. It's a reference to Carter G Woodson’s 1933 book on Black education so it's kind of like a play on words in that sense and it's not a reference to the Lauryn hill album which everyone thinks it's a reference to.

Santy Mendoza: What's the topic of your thesis and why did you pursue it?

Sydney Lewis: So my thesis is about the African and African American studies department at Harvard specifically the circumstances leading up to its creation in 1969 as well as kind of the power struggles and contestations experienced by the department in its early years of existence at Harvard. And so I wanted to pursue this for a lot of reasons, one reason was mainly that this is like the outcome of some research that I did the summer after my first year I did at the research village at Harvard and I was doing a lot of archival research to kind of tell the story of the African American studies department at Harvard. That was really an important moment academically for me because it made me want to switch my major to African American studies, so I did. Also, it just kind of naturally grew into my thesis because I just had done so much archival work and I knew that I wanted to make something of it. Also as an African American studies major, it holds personal and academic stakes, for me so I've always kind of wanted to explore my positionality in relation to my academic field. As an African American at Harvard studying African American studies, I grew really interested in the origins of the field of black studies and how specifically it came to be at Harvard, which is the nation's most prestigious. Ivy league undergraduate liberal arts colleges have been embedded in a lot of violence against black people and so there's a lot of questions about how we grapple with all of that, and I felt like this thesis would be a really great way for me to research and explore and answer some of those questions okay.

Santy Mendoza: What do you think your main findings were or what was the most interesting thing that you like learned?

Sydney Lewis: I think my thesis makes an original contribution to the literature around black studies because so much of the existing work focuses on the like activism to form black studies and African American studies departments and my thesis kind of expands on that. Expands on that work in order to really concern itself with the issues that took place after. So kind of framing the department's founding as the beginning of a struggle for equity and recognition in the Academy for black thought and Black scholarship. So kind of asking those questions about how questions of power and interdisciplinary collaboration and orientation towards the university and how that has been historically constructed and how the socio-cultural and political era of the late 1960s and early 1970s shaped the early construction of the department. My main conclusion questions the kind of considerations that went into the founding of the African and African American studies program at Harvard and are still ongoing and relevant today. A lot of people just see it as something that happened 50 years ago, but what my thesis is arguing is that the struggle to make legible and legitimate the history and culture, and lives of the people of the African diaspora, is one of challenging dominant epistemologies and dominant knowledge-making processes. Which you know are historically like euro hegemony and a way to address that failure of existing scholarship to adequately acknowledge black contributions, and so I feel like the African and African American studies department is continuing to do that work of scholarly commitment and study of the marginalized and dispossessed. This is a very important contribution, especially in an academic circle like Harvard, which is very white male-dominated.

Santy Mendoza: What was the research process like for your thesis?

Sydney Lewis: Oh, my gosh it was a lot, but I would say, first of all, just hours and hours spent in the Harvard University archives looking at old newspapers, old course catalogs, old photos, and correspondence magazines. Another part was reviewing the literature. Reading a lot of contemporary and also historical work about the field of African American studies. There's kind of a lot of existing literature about the field of black studies and kind of a lot of interesting angles to it, so I just really immersed myself in that. Another important part was an interview with Skip Gates, who was the head of the department in the 90s, and he is currently a brilliant brilliant man and he teaches the introductory African American studies course at Harvard. So talking to him was such an honor and he has so much knowledge about how the department functions and its purpose and its placement within the university. 

Santy Mendoza: What kept you motivated throughout the entire process?

Sydney Lewis: I was honestly really internally motivated; I love my thesis topic. I think that I chose a topic very intentionally so that I was very, very passionate about it and would not get easily bored of it. Because I know people who hate their topics and like it's such a chore for them, but for me I never felt super burned out. My thesis topic is something that I think about all the time and it isn't an easily resolvable question. I also am a history nerd, I'm a history buff I really love this kind of stuff, and as someone who's studying African American studies at Harvard, I was learning about something that was relevant to me. I was studying the past but for me, it was all remarkably present, and so my motivation was a kind of self-discovery and curiosity.

Santy Mendoza: um The next question is like who we are main supporters throughout your thesis writing journey.

Sydney Lewis: My thesis advisor 100%.  My thesis advisor her name is Aaron Friedman, she's a Ph.D. student in the history of science department and she was just so great. She really believed in me at times when I fully did not believe in myself or in my work. She was always there to reassure me and tell me that I had a story to tell, and that was really, really important to me.

Obviously, my friends at Harvard were literally indispensable to me, especially my other senior friends who were also writing theses. That is one piece of advice, I will say if you're writing a thesis, make friends or find friends who are also writing theses because that will be your support network, and people who aren't writing don't really understand what it's like. Friends will always help you get through hard times and I think my fellow history of science concentrators also were really helpful and supportive and kind. Just always willing to give advice or answer questions. My family, the work that they've done that has been put into the thesis is like invisible, it's been happening for literally 21 years to get me to this point. A lot of the reason why I wrote this thesis and I believed that I could, was because of my family. They instilled a lot of pride in my black identity and in the importance of education and that really made me feel like this thesis was not only doable but really important. 

Santy Mendoza: How did your work at the Harvard foundation impact or relate to your thesis topic?

Sydney Lewis: The foundation's purpose is to facilitate intercultural relations and awareness and respect within Harvard so I think that commitment and that dedication to humanize each other and to empathize across cultures, and especially to uplift the marginalized is very personally important to me. It is also very much related to my thesis topic because a lot of my thesis centers on narratives about the value and the worth of black life and culture and knowledge through the African and African American studies department. My thesis really speaks to understanding the systemic exclusion from academic circles. I wanted to create that narrative and honor the contributions of the activists and the advocates who came before us, which I think is really related to the foundation's mission. Also to emphasize the contributions of those who have historically been deemed unworthy of taking up space, and so, the Afro-American studies department is really fundamentally about claiming territory in the landscape of curriculum and so, in doing that it's a way of making a social impact and it's a way of engaged scholarship. The foundation's mission is to increase understanding and to increase specifically racial understanding and to commit itself to respect for all people.

Santy Mendoza: Do you have any advice for future thesis writers?

Sydney Lewis: Yes, oh my gosh so much advice! I think I already shared some earlier but I'll go through them quickly. Like I said before, choose a topic that you really love learning more about because you will learn a lot about it and you have to become an expert in your topic. So that's probably the most important piece of advice I can offer honestly. I will also say to start writing early. You don't need to have everything figured out before you start writing and sometimes the motivation and the inspiration aren't there and it's not always going to be there right away. I will also say to understand that you can't do it all. My thesis is ambitious, but it was even more ambitious. You need to humble yourself sometimes and realize that your work can be a really important contribution to the literature but, ultimately, there are limits. Sometimes it's better to do less, sometimes less is more. Constraints aren't always a bad thing, and I think it's actually sometimes better to tell a smaller story in a lot of depth and detail, instead of just trying to do it all. So that's another piece of advice and then my last piece would just be to take care of yourself and your mental health during the whole process of writing a thesis. It’s something that you know is going to be challenging and it's going to ask a lot of you but ultimately, your well-being needs to come before any academic endeavor anything and that includes your thesis. So if you can always balance your thesis with your other interests and with friends and family and hobbies and find times to still do things that you love. I think that's just something that I wish I had listened to, especially during the last week of thesis writing. Just remember, you are doing great and wonderful work, and don't compare your work to other people's theses. So yeah, I will just say take care of yourself, first and foremost, is my last piece of advice.