Finding Michael Brown at Harvard
I’ll never forget how the pavement felt, lying on my back in the middle of traffic. The cold through my shirt. Pebbles digging into my skin.
It was in the first semester at Harvard. Freshman year. There was a lot going on: I was taking four classes and I was one of the new guys on the basketball team. And now it was late November and here I was lying on my back in the middle of a busy street in Cambridge. Traffic had stopped. Horns were honking.
I remember saying to myself, Chris … dude … how did you get here?
Let me back up.
Being at Harvard was a little surreal. I hadn’t expected to get in in the first place, you know? And then I was sitting in old lecture halls and living in an old dorm and wearing Crimson basketball shorts. My first semester classes were great (intermediate microeconomics, introduction to global social change, calculus and a class about the civil rights movement) and I was juggling all of it with basketball. I was already making some great new friends — meeting kids from every state in the country, as well as from Canada, China, India, everywhere. And even though I’d gone to pretty rigorous boarding schools in Canada and Florida, my new college classmates were super impressive … they seemed like they were operating on, I don’t know, a higher frequency? It was exhilarating — and intimidating.
Then, on that day in November, I was lying in the middle of Mass Ave. with horns honking all around me.
That also felt surreal, but in a different way.
My parents were born in Nigeria and they both left home to study in Canada, where they met and started a family. My brother, sister and I were born in Toronto, but our parents always made sure that we knew where we came from. Dreaming big was always important in my family. In Nigerian families like mine, our bedtime stories tended to be about things like law school and med school … and Harvard.
It’s funny: I recently came across this home video of me when I was seven. It was probably shot on a VHS camcorder, and in it my mom has me and my older sister and older brother gathered in the living room. It looks like some sort of presidential debate for ambitious kids. We used to do this kind of thing a lot — my parents would ask us to prepare “speeches” about math, science, current events, whatever. That day, the question was about what we wanted to be when we grew up. My sister said she dreamed of being a writer. My brother said he wanted to go into real estate like our dad. Next up was me — this skinny, gap-toothed kid rocking a gray T-shirt a couple of sizes too big.
“I’m going to be CEO of the company,” I said.
(By the way, yes, I didn’t say a company, but the company … seven-year-olds, smh.)
“And before you become CEO of the company, what are you going to study?” my mom asked.
“I’m going to go to Harvard and learn a lot.”
So yeah, it was on my mind from an early age. And throughout high school I worked hard to make it a reality — studying for math tests, three hours of basketball workouts a day, A.P. classes, SAT prep, the whole thing. By the time I was a sophomore, I had the top academic average in my school, and I was also the No. 1–ranked basketball player in Canada for my age.
Then on December 13, 2013, I got an email. I’d finished my A.P. calculus exam a little bit ahead of time. I slipped out of class and went back to my dorm room to check my phone. There was an email from Harvard marked 3:25 p.m.. The first four words were, “Dear Mr. Egi, Congratulations.” I don’t remember much else — just that I felt like I was floating above myself.
It’s weird, because I didn’t shout or go crazy, like those videos you see of people going nuts or being mobbed by their family and friends. For me it wasn’t like that. There’s no video. I just let out a breath of air, and put my head on my desk.
The first thing I thought about — it was my grandfather. And a story about an orange tree in his backyard.
I never met him, but I felt like I knew a lot about him from the stories my mom had told us. The orange-tree story her favorite. This is how it went.
Anytime my mother and her brothers and sisters got their report cards, they’d bring them home — still unopened — and wait for my grandfather to come home from work.
That means “Dad’s home” in Ososo, the dialect of the Edoid language that people spoke in my grandparents’ village. Then my grandpa would open the report cards, one by one, with a serious look on his face. Then, the way my mom tells it, he would smile and lead them all to the backyard, to his orange tree.
He’d start climbing this tree — and it was apparently pretty tall — literally climbing the tree, branch by branch.
And once he got near the top, he’d yell out, “Higher, higher and higher!”
I still think about that story a lot, and about how my grandfather’s dream lived on through my mom, who went on to be a nurse in Toronto.
She and my father had three kids — my older brother, William, my little sister, Alexis, and me.
So you can imagine, all these years later, the excitement — and the pressure — that I felt when I got into Harvard.
All I knew about Harvard, before I got there, was that it seemed like this mythic place where you read a lot of books, studied a lot, met interesting people — and hopefully found out more about what you want to do.
I hoped, you know, that Harvard would prepare me for the rest of my life.
What Harvard couldn’t prepare me for was how another 18-year-old kid — a kid from Ferguson, Missouri — would change me. And the way he lived, the way he died, and how his dreams were cut short — it would have a big impact on the way I thought about my own life, and my own dreams.
I hadn’t planned on being at the protest. Earlier in the day, my best friend and teammate, Andre, and I were walking back to the dining hall after a grueling two-hour practice at Lavietes Pavilion. My legs were killing me. We saw a mass of people in the street. They had signs that said things like BLACK LIVES MATTER and SAY HIS NAME. They were chanting slogans.
At first, Andre and I stopped walking and waited for the protest to pass so we could cross the street and get some dinner.
For reasons I’ll get to in a second, we joined the crowd, and started to walk with them in the direction of Central Square. Thirty minutes later, we were lying on the pavement with 100 other people.
Two thoughts were going through my head. The first was about how slowed down everything felt — we were probably only lying down in the street for 10 minutes but it felt like 30 or 45, like the length of one of my lectures.
I also thought about the number 4.
As in four hours.
Because four hours — that’s how long they said Michael Brown’s body had been left lying on the pavement in Ferguson after he had been killed. They said nobody moved his body for four hours. Like they just left it there. On the pavement. Alone.
It was those four hours. I think that’s what got me. I couldn’t get my head around it. Before college I had been aware of some of the uglier parts of America’s history — of racism and institutional violence — or as aware as the average young person could be, anyway.
But four hours was different. It wasn’t a date in history or an op-ed in The New York Times or a lecture from a professor. It felt … I don’t know … more raw. More current.
It felt like now.
And I guess that’s why I’d felt compelled to joined the protesters that day — even if I hadn’t ever considered myself an activist. It was because Ferguson happened the same month I started college — the same time Michael Brown would’ve started college. And because I was 18 years old, the same age as Michael Brown. And I was tall, I was muscular, I was black. I was a man, but also a kid. I was a kid, but also a threat.
The same, in a lot of ways, as Michael Brown.
Walking back toward Harvard Square after the protest, Andre and I didn’t say much to each other. But I remember saying — to him? to myself? — “Do you think that meant something? I mean … do you think it meant anything? Like things might change?”
He didn’t have a response. Maybe he was wondering the same thing.
Each year, Harvard’s freshman class is about 8–10% black. My blackness felt like it was woven into every experience at Harvard — ever-present but also invisible. Nobody mentioned it, but it was a part of me and everything I did. But there were still moments that really knocked me back and reminded me how much, to paraphrase Cornel West, race still matters.
Like something that I experienced my freshman year.
It was during an orientation event, and I was riding back from an event with a few other freshmen — it was me, another black kid, a Hispanic student and a white student sitting next to each other on the bus. We were talking about … just everything — current events, what we planned on studying and what we wanted to change in the world.
I’ll never forget what happened next.
A man walked over to us. He was an older guy. White. He looked us up and down and said, “Hey! I guess this is the affirmative action bus.”
That shook me. I’ll admit that it took a lot of restraint for me not to say anything back to him.
The experience lingered with me. All the sacrifice that my parents had put into my future. My dad working his ass off to pay for my private school. My mom driving me an hour each way to that school every day. All those hours studying A.P. Biology after back-to-back basketball practices. Top student in my class. Leadership positions. Awards. Everything I had done to feel like I deserved this opportunity. To become more than just a kid from Markham, Ontario. To become a Harvard Man. A future leader.
He didn’t see none of that s***. To him, I couldn’t have possibly deserved my spot at Harvard. To him, I was still just another n— … never mind.
And look, most of Harvard isn’t like that, and a lot of the world isn’t like that. But that experience stayed with me.
Before I graduated last spring, and a few weeks after my last basketball game in a Crimson uniform, I heard about another young black man, Stephon Clark, who had been killed by the police. This time in Sacramento. That was the moment something changed in me. I was determined to move beyond just thoughts and words. I wanted to take action. But how?
I came up with a plan to organize a concert on campus to raise money for organizations that addressed police brutality. I’d never planned an event like that before, but I got a lot of help from my fellow students, and 21 days later we put on a show that we called “No More Names.” It included music by Harvard students, the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club (shout out my man Eche), the rapper Vic Mensa (the founder of the SaveMoneySaveLife organization), and a special guest appearance by Dr. Harry Edwards, the organizer of the protest at the 1968 Olympics. We raised almost $8,000. This year, I’m hoping to expand our benefit concert series to all eight Ivy League schools — and if we can pull it off, we’re expecting to raise closer to $40,000.
At Commencement in June, I was lucky enough to be chosen from over 100 candidates to give a speech at Class Day. (It is what inspired this essay.) In my speech, I referenced a line from Langston Hughes’s famous poem, Harlem:
“What happens to a dream deferred?”
It made me think of my grandfather’s dream for his children — the dream he would act out by climbing that orange tree
This summer, I started my first job in the “real world,” and lately I’ve been thinking about my grandfather’s tree in a new way. I used to just think about it in individual terms — educational success, accolades, a good job, etc. But now I think it’s wider than that. To me, his dream is more than just how high in that tree we could go as individuals. It’s not only about his love for his children, but also for the children of other families, a love that’s about a community larger than just your own family. Maybe his dream was also about how we could use generosity and love, our time and our resources, to enable and encourage others to climb higher, too.
That his dream was a shared one.
In spite of the divided and volatile political climate my generation is walking into, I still have hope. I have hope that we will march for justice, in all the many ways it’s possible to. I have hope that we can continue to seek a better future, even as we wrestle with our complicated past.
And that we won’t ever stop climbing.
Because the next generation is on its way and it will be watching what we do. Every fall, another group of freshmen starts college around the country. They’re looking up to us. We have to go out in the world and follow through.
What happens to a dream deferred?
I think what happens is: We all lose.
It’s a lot to live up to, but do we really have a choice?