HATTIESBURG, Miss. – The same month that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly opted for a new state flag without a Confederate emblem, Noah Harris was elected student body president at Harvard University.
It’s been a defining year for Harris, a 20-year-old Black man from Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
“I definitely don’t take that lightly,” Harris, a junior majoring in government, said of the confidence placed in him. “Especially with everything that went on this summer with the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, all the protests that went on in this moment of racial reckoning in this country. This is a major statement by the Harvard student body to entrust a Black man with such an unprecedented moment in its history.”
Harris follows two other Black students who have headed Harvard’s Undergraduate Council, but Harris is the first Black man to be elected by the student body.
Cary Gabay (1994) was the first Black man to serve in the role; he was chosen in 1993 by members of the council, prior to voting changing to include the entire student body in 1995. Gabay died in 2015 after being caught in the crossfire of a shooting in New York City. Fentrice Driskell (2001) became the first Black woman to be elected, in 1999. She now serves in the Florida House of Representatives, where she recently was elected to a second term.
Harris co-chairs the Undergraduate Council’s Black Caucus and serves as treasurer. Jenny Gan, a junior from Cleveland who is studying neuroscience, is the new vice president. The two ran on a platform of diversity and inclusion, improving student life and focusing on students’ mental and physical health. They were elected Nov. 12 and will be sworn in Dec. 6 for their 2021 term.
State flag and Southern stereotypes
Harris said the process of changing the state flag, a decision made by the Mississippi Legislature this summer, is something he will never forget.
“As you can imagine, learning, sitting in Mississippi studies class and being like, ‘Oh, this is our state flag and it’s got a Confederate battle emblem.’ That was a rallying cry at a time where Black people were less than human, and it just makes you feel negatively towards yourself. Like how could it not,” he said.
“It was an amazing moment in casting my ballot for the new flag in the November elections.”
Harris, though, has always been a supporter of his home state.
“A lot of people from the South will tell you, when you go places and you tell them, ‘Oh, I’m from Mississippi,’ I’ve definitely gotten the jokes like ‘Do you have shoes?’ ‘Do you have running water?’ ‘Oh, do you also have Wi-Fi?’ ‘You speak in complete sentences,’” Harris said. “And hearing those things, it doesn’t feel great.
But, he said, he’s always trying to show people that that’s “not the Mississippi that I’m from, that I know.
“I want people to know I’m proud of who I am. I’ve never shied away from it. I’m from Mississippi. I’m proud of that, too.”
Exposing the relatively privileged to ‘broader issues of fairness’
Brandon Terry, an assistant professor of African and African American studies and social studies at Harvard, said Harris is “somebody who has made sure that the relatively privileged student body that we have at Harvard is exposed to and attuned to broader issues of fairness in the larger society.”
“That’s rare as a student body leader. You can imagine a lot of student body leadership is pretty narrowly inward focused and you can’t get far by just doing the status quo. He’s somebody who has really broken with that. He seems responsive to a higher calling.”
Terry also believes Harris’ accomplishment makes an important statement about Harvard.
“I think it reflects a growing interest among the broader student body in taking these questions of diversity and inclusion seriously, not just as an abstract or intellectual puzzle, but as a set of values to be lived in the decisions that they make in their most intimate community,” Terry said.
“For him, it’s not just that he’s African American. It’s more so that those are the principles he put forward and the substance of his campaign. And to have those principles ratified by the broader student body I think is an important statement, especially in a university that’s often been known for favoring the wealthy.”
Harris said that though Harvard is diverse – minority students, including the outgoing Undergraduate Council…