|Black History at VT:||Black History Timeline||First Black Grads||Black Women||Oral Histories|
Oral History Interview with Janelle Harden
Date of Interview: October 31,2000
Harden: Well, it wasn't so much local. But the way they set it up with me was at Christmas, Thanksgiving, any breaks I could come back and work. I just needed to call them up and say I'm coming in tomorrow.
Cook: What was that company?
Harden: DOD, Department of Defense, specifically Defense Information Systems Agency, Center for Integration.
Cook: You are very busy!
Cook: You didn't even have vacation!
Harden: No, I was working. I worked through high school, worked through college.
Cook: What did you do in high school?
Harden: Well, I baby sat and worked at a bookstore. So, after track practice, I'd go and work at the bookstore. I'd come home and do my homework. A lot of people say, Oh my gosh, your parents let you do that? But, it wasn't about 'they let me.' Actually, my dad offered to pay me not to work. But, I wanted to. I wanted to earn my own money. I wanted to be that independent.
Cook: That's very admirable. We need more people like you![Laughter]
Cook: I'm not sure if you have scholarships in the Corps but do you have any scholarships?
Harden: I have an Air Force scholarship and what's called a Carl Rowan scholarship. Carl Rowan is a publicist out of D.C., Washington, D.C. I have one of the scholarships that he gives out.
Cook: How did you get that one?
Harden: Through high school. I was nominated by my teachers in high school and you give a speech in front of about 15 people and they say, "We liked your speech. We feel that you're going to be positive in college. You're going to make a difference." You have a choice. You could either accept one of seven scholarships to schools of their choice or you can accept just money and go to a school of your choosing.
Cook: Which is what you did?
Cook: That is for four years?
Harden: It could be for four years but I only got it for my freshmen year because the Air Force picked up my last four years.
Cook: Oh, all right! Is that Rowan, ROWAN?
Cook: Could you tell me what you're going to do after you graduate?
Harden: I'm going into the Air Force and what I would like to do is my four years in the Air Force and reevaluate if I'm going to stay or leave. But, I am applying to grad school because I want to go into Urban Affairs and Planning. What I want to do with that is in terms of social work by opening up safe houses for children and for battered women.
Harden: I'm a big humanitarian. I think everyone can be saved!
Cook: Very interesting with your technical and engineering side that you have that humanitarian side. Do you love children?
Harden: I do. I do! For the longest time, I didn't want kids. I always called them rugrats. I don't want any of those! Then I started working more and more at my church and in local areas. Like when I would go and visit my sister in Miami, I would see kids on the streets. Well, I would see adults but it really bothered me that there were children living on the streets. They would rob and they would steal just because they needed food.
Cook: Little kids?
Harden: They were maybe 10 or 12.
Cook: This was in the past decade?
Harden: Yes, in Miami. It would really bother me when I went down there. Even when I went into Washington, D.C. and I'd walk around. I'm going in and out of museums and this child, maybe 15 or 16. I'm saying child like I'm so much older! [Laughter] 15 or 16 and they're standing there asking for food, trying somehow to get money to survive. They're simply trying to survive. I don't think any child should be forced to survive in that way! Where you're put out on the streets.
I know so many families who came home and they thought their rent was being paid; they thought the husband was paying the rent. He wasn't paying the rent but he was stealing the money and having an affair. Whatever he was doing and now they're out on the street. The kids are victims. It's not their fault they're out on the street. And in terms of battered women, so many people I know have been victims of sexual assault. Husbands have been beating them and so forth.
I don't think anyone should have to suffer in that way. I know there are a lot of community groups and homes that you can go to but I want to offer mine for after school problems like if the child just needed tutoring or they just needed a meal. If they needed breakfast, they could come and get that. Get what they needed, basically.
Cook: Because they are our future!
Cook: Are you politically active in any way?
Harden: I like to think I am. I'm a part of what's called PAN and that's Progressive Action Network and what that is, is the NAACP, Tree Care. NRV Care, which is like the animals, animal shelters and so forth, Women's Space in the Women's Center and so forth. It's a whole bunch of different activists on campus and we get together every other week and we talk about what our groups are doing and what we can do to help each other. We keep that network going to better our community whether it be Virginia Tech or nationally. Amnesty International is on the records.
Cook: What does PAN stand for again?
Harden: Progressive Action Network. We took a bus up to the women's march. That was on Sunday. Well, I wasn't there to picket in front of Target but in terms of...Gosh! What is the term when someone is using cheap labor and they don't pay you for it?
Cook: Is it slave labor?
Harden: Basically, exactly and we would go out to that Target, not necessarily this Target, but there are Target chains in other areas that do use a real cheap labor force, so we're picketing them.
Cook: Wonderful! That is very politically active! And you have time for that?
Harden: I try to.
Cook: Do you go to church here and which church?
Harden: I go to St. Paul AME. I'm Baptist. I go to St. Paul AME just because there's a family atmosphere and I like that. I like having that as a community. If I need them, they're there.
Cook: Do you know Dr. Herndon?
Harden: Yes, Michael Herndon.
Cook: How was your reception when you first came into the Corps?
Harden: I think everyone goes through the stage where you want to quit. So I was dealing with that plus I was older than the freshman that were there. I didn't have the same interests as they did. When they would talk about where's the nearest party or frat house that didn't interest me at all. So I had a conflict with them because they didn't understand why don't you hang out with us, why don't you do this? I'm older than you; this doesn't faze me at all.
Cook: Were the majority girls?
Harden: Girls and guys. Some of them didn't speak to me just because I didn't hang out...nothing they did interest me. You know we were in the Corps together but my goal was to get to the Air Force. My goal wasn't to make new friends. In that regard, I think I was a little...maybe I should have tried harder. I don't know. But, it was a different reception.
Cook: Did you have to go through being a RAT?
Harden: I did.
Cook: Even though you came in your sophomore year?
Harden: Exactly, even though I had gone through basic training and all of that.
Cook: Oh wow!
Harden: You still have to go through that and that kind of bothered me because it seemed like 'old hat.' I felt like I was being a freshman for the third time and I didn't like it. But, I stuck to it because it was part of the process to get to my goal. It's part of the process. Have to go through the process!
Cook: Is that a year process?
Harden: Yes, I only did it August through November. Well actually let me take that back, I only did it the first semester.
Cook: I can't imagine what that would be like.
Harden: It's different. I learned a lot about myself. What I would deal with and what I wouldn't deal with and the power of 'no' and the power of standing up for who I am. Just because you're in a subordinate position does not mean that you don't have power. I think a lot of people who are freshman forget that. It does not mean you don't have any say as to what happens to you. I let it be known as a matter of fact my nickname got to be, Censored, because people said well, I guess they felt like they couldn't do certain things around me or whatever. I said, well that's fine. If I can make you feel on guard when you are around me, great! Call me whatever, Censor, Blackout, whatever.
Cook: That's just a compliment.
Harden: Exactly and when they gave me the shirt, they thought I was going to be offended and I thought you're the one who's second guessing, not me.
Cook: They gave you a shirt with Censor on it?
Cook: Well, how do you show your power in that type of situation? For instance, I guess there is a stereotype of being yelled at or something.
Harden: One thing that you always have to remember in any kind of hostile when I say hostile in terms of yelling or pushing in that environment is that no one can put their hands on you. You can yell at me all you want. You're the one that's going to lose your voice, not me. You can't put your hands on me and what's the worse thing that you're going to do to me...yell. I can deal with that until you don't have a voice anymore. So, it wasn't so much that I just didn't do anything but I would get down there in the dirt and do my pushups and sit-ups and so forth and you couldn't tell me.
Like the information we had to learn in the terms of military history, the Corps history...knew it, took my tests, do what I had to do. But, I wasn't one of those people who hung out and let me get goody goody with you and let me figure out what buttons I can push with you. No, I'm about getting through this process. Just get to the end. All this unnecessary stuff, in terms of excess yelling and...I can remember things like cleaning the bathroom...it wasn't bad things but like, what's the point? Cleaning the hallways and stuff like that. I understand that everybody has to pull those duties. It wasn't stuff like that. It didn't make sense at first. Like why are we out here? But, after awhile I was like, it's not going to kill me to clean the hallway.
I remember one night; I was walking to the bathroom. I was just going to the bathroom and one of the cadets, I want to say a sergeant stopped me and he looked me up and down and wouldn't look in my face. I'm real big on that. Look me in the face if you have something to say. He would look me up and down and he was walking around me. He said, "So, I hear you're on the track team." I said, "Yes." He said, "You look like it!" I thought, "Why, you have no business staring at me!" So, where some person might have been, "Oh he stared at me!" It wasn't right. I was uncomfortable. Well, I went and told my commanding officer. I gave him an expectation about what I expect you to do about this situation. And that night...I had an apology by the end of the night.
Cook: Good for you! You do have power.
Harden: Exactly, you do have power and you don't have to deal with it.
Cook: Instead of letting it degrade you.
Harden: Exactly, you turn it around.
Cook: It's hard for me to imagine.
Harden: It is hard. I try to go over there, even now. I try to go over and talk to the freshman, just whoever I pass in the hallway. Just keep your head up. You can do it! Just little things to let them know there is someone who has gone through it. A lot of the older people who are yelling at you, the sophomores, juniors and seniors, some of them, yes, are yelling at you because they are power tripping. Some of them are actually doing their job because they care about you and they want you to be the best.
So, you have to decipher who those people are. Who to listen to you and who not to listen to. What you'll find is that most of the people who are power tripping are the ones who are yelling at you. The ones who care, who want you to be the best are the ones that are pushing you. They are like, come on you can do it. I saw you make that mistake. Why are you making that mistake? This is the right way to do it. Do it again. Do it again. It's the people who are going to push you, not the people that yell at you. That's the big difference and I would hope that they would come to learn and decipher.
Cook: Do you try to help women and men?
Harden: I do. I do. Actually I mentor four of the cadet freshman.
Cook: Are they women or men?
Harden: Three men and one woman.
Cook: Is that typical for older students?
Harden: No actually, it's typical out of the engineering department. They're all engineers.
Cook: Oh, okay.
Harden: What the engineering department does or minority engineering department, what they do is try as an older cadet to match you up with freshman cadets. If you're an older athlete, match you up with freshman athletes who are in the engineering department so that you can help guide them and steer them. Kind of, okay you should do this, don't do that, take this person, don't take this person, rearrange your schedule. For freshman, they try to get them into calculus and engineering fundamentals classes together so they already have a study group. They don't have to worry about making friends or trying to find a study group. You already have one. It's about five to seven students on each team. I just happen to have four because there aren't that many cadets.
Cook: So that would help with retention?
Harden: Yes, also retention but we go to dinner, we have time management. We have to sit down to a work out session okay, tell me all your strengths and weaknesses. We have fun!
Cook: Do you live on-campus?
Harden: This semester I live off-campus. For the past three years, I lived on campus.
Cook: Where did you live on campus?
Harden: My first year I was in A.J, East A.J. and the last three were in Brodie. Now I live in Cedarfield Apartments.
Cook: Do you like living off-campus?
Harden: I do! I like having 'my room.' There's not a roommate there and there's no one knocking on my door. It's MY ROOM! My kitchen, my refrigerator and what I put in is there the next day! I don't have to worry about going to the dining halls. It's mine.
Cook: Do you live by yourself?
Harden: No, I do have a roommate. She was my roommate my junior year and we enjoy living together. She is also graduating in December. We have very odd schedules, so we actually don't see each other often in the apartment.
Cook: Are you on the track team at Tech?
Harden: I was. I stopped. The track team demands a lot of you.
Cook: The traveling?
Harden: The traveling, exactly. That's what got me, the traveling. Trying to do that and be an engineer. Something had to give so I left the team. I'd like to go back but not until after I get my degree. It won't be until after I get my degree.
Cook: Did you run the four hundred?
Cook: How many years were you on the team?
Harden: Just one just because in engineering, they throw you in at first.
Cook: Do they not want you to go?
Harden: No they were just like, "Why are you going?" When I explained the reason was in terms of academic, she could understand that. She was like we can get tutors and computers and so forth. I was like; it's a time factor. When you travel on Thursday to Sunday, you miss that class time and lab time, group time. There's only so much of that you can make up with a tutor.
Cook: I bet that's a lot of stress. You're at a meet and you have to do all of that.
Harden: Exactly, where everyone is listening to Walkman's, you'd be in the corner...this problem is...I'd be in the corner trying to do my homework.
Cook: Do you have a mentor in the Corps?
Harden: Not now. My mentor actually wasn't a Cadet. She was an engineer and after that first year, I knew older people in the Corps who were also engineers so I would go to them for help. But, my specific mentor was not in the Corps.
Cook: Could you tell me about her?
Harden: Davida Mason. She was wonderful. She was wonderful from freshman year on. We're still friends. She is getting her MBA at Pace University in New York. I'm going to see her in a few weeks.
Cook: Is she African American?
Harden: Yes. She was wonderful in terms of like everything from where to wash my clothes, what classes to take someone to talk to. She was great. She would come and visit me and I would go and visit her. When my parents weren't down on weekends and everyone else in the whole dorm had a family, she would be my family and I would go stay with her. She was just great. Never judgmental about anything; you know you make freshman mistakes, you make college mistakes. Never judgmental, always supportive. Like well, you know you need to and you don't need to and I trust you. You're going to be okay.
Cook: A big sister?
Cook: Can you say her name again?
Harden: Davida Mason.
Cook: That's Davit?
Harden: No, it's David with an "a."
Cook: Do you feel any resistance in the Corps, from males, being female and black?
Harden: There is some but you have to know how to handle it. When I say there's some first of all being a female in a predominantly male atmosphere, you're going to have to prove yourself. The guys only look out for you to a certain extent and then it becomes you have to survive on your own and you have to show I'm here for the long hall and I'm going to work just as hard if not harder than you are. In terms of male. In terms of race, I think it's a freshman atmosphere of I don't know. From the environment I come from I don't know. I don't know how to interact with people not of my race. So there's a lot of that struggle.
Comments are made and certain situations occur that shouldn't occur but it's in the way you handle it. You do have a commanding officer. You can hold people accountable for their actions. Then it becomes a matter of education like on a daily basis just walking around you might hear someone using a phrase like I don't know...let me think...like imitating a comedian, a black comedian. Something like that. And they would approach you and say don't you know what this joke means, what this word means...
Cook: A white person?
Harden: A white person, exactly. It's like, no, do you just assume I know that because a black person said it and I'm black too? It's that sort of thing.
Cook: Would you actually say that?
Harden: I would! Just because I want to know is that honestly what you think? From that point it's no, not all of us think alike. So that might be what they think and I don't agree with it. So, it becomes...you almost have to educate them. Not everyone means it in an offensive way, they just don't know. That is a line you have to walk. Who means it and who just doesn't know and then you go from there. I think it takes time if its time you want to invest.
Cook: But you've never come up against any overt racism?
Harden: There was one incident where my roommate and I were asleep and I'm a light sleeper and three guys were standing outside our door. They were talking and one made a comment, like, well, niggers shouldn't be here anyway because...it was something to the effect that they're too dumb to be here. Something to that affect and I'm the only African American in that Company and you're standing outside my door saying... He had to know. He had to know. I took it to my Commanding Officer. We have Company officers who are advisors to the Company. It so happened that our Company Commander was also in the Air Force so they handled the situation. Unfortunately I couldn't tell who it was.
Cook: Was it a male?
Harden: It was a male. I know it was a male. But I couldn't tell who it was so from that point, I'm not going to sit here and guess who it was but know that I won't stand for this. So I let my Commanding Officer know and I let the Air Force know. We had a Company meeting with everyone present. A report was made up in terms of I heard and we later found out who the person was and they were banned from the building and eventually left the Corps.
Cook: Did you want to open the door and just kill him?
Harden: I wanted to but it was one o'clock or two o'clock in the morning. So it was late anyway and I don't know if you are drinking. So I didn't want to get into the conversation. I looked out at the people. I couldn't tell who it was. I still couldn't tell because where they were sitting was lower than what I could see.
Cook: So obviously, it's co-ed.
Harden: Oh, yeah! My room and the room next to me, we were the only females on that floor. Everyone else was male. Oh yeah!
Cook: I guess I had that stereotype.
Harden: That's another thing. People leave their doors unlocked. People wander in drunk.
Cook: Or walking to the bathroom at night.
Harden: Walking to the bathroom, oh yeah!
Cook: You're not allowed to lock your door?
Harden: Oh, yeah, but some females...I shouldn't say females, some people wouldn't just because it's a cadet atmosphere. It's supposed to be safe. Everyone's on the honor code and so forth. So I shouldn't have to lock my door. But, then you run into people who are drunk. They may come back to the dorm and they may mistake their room for your room, so forth and so forth.
Cook: Here I have a stereotype of there would be no drinking in the Corps.
Harden: You would think, you would hope but it happens.
Cook: It's college.
Harden: Exactly, it's college. A lot of people think you're a cadet. You're supposed to be at a different level, a different standard but people are people.[End of Tape 1, Side 1]
Harden: It's not in the majority at all, at all. It's very few people.
Cook: That is very interesting. Thank you for sharing that. I think you already answered this as well. Do you think the Corps is a macho environment?
Harden: In many ways, yes.
Cook: Did you see Missy Cummings talk? She was a fighter pilot?
Harden: No, I didn't hear her talk but I know her in terms of the department of engineering. But, no I missed her.
Cook: She says that in the Navy there is...I guess she was referring to the "warrior culture." Do you feel that is true?
Harden: I could agree with that. It's definitely fighting, well not that struggling, surviving. You have to do it. If that's what you want, you have to survive. There are many different ways of surviving and you have to choose which way you're going to go. Are you going to survive by letting people walk all over you and hope that you get to your goal or are you going to survive by making good choices and letting people know that you are a presence here.
Cook: Do you get a lot of your attributes through your parents?
Harden: Yes [laughter].
Cook: That's wonderful! What leadership opportunities does the Corps offer you?
Harden: Oh gosh! So many. Actually starting in your freshman year, you can be what's called the "head new cadet." Basically that means you're responsible for your bud class in terms of knowing where everyone is, setting up schedules for them and so forth. Actually it's called the "head new cadet." Sophomore year you can be a team leader, scholastics officer...coming on up, a squad leader and it's just a matter of how many cadets are underneath you. When I finished the Corps, I was the regimental chaplain, so I oversaw a lot of the spiritual needs of the Corps in terms of setting up studies, counseling studies, in terms of PR counseling, peer mediation. A lot of that stuff.
Main Page - Part One - Part Two - Part Three
|University Libraries||Digital Library and Archives||Special Collections||University Archives|
Send questions or comments to: