Sunday, January 9, 2011

Harvey Grogo

What the Consumer Guide did to upset the tone of relations between the sexes at MIT, the "Harvey Grogo" affair likewise served to undermine race relations.  A little background - every year, the Technology Community Association, or TCA, which is a student service group (there was also Alpha Phi Omega, or APO, which was a service fraternity) - puts out an orientation book that it sends to all incoming students called the Freshman Picture Book, which is a compendium of photos of each freshman; it was a kind of "getting to know you guide" for the new undergraduates.  And each year, the President of MIT or one of the deans would be inserted as a gag photo.  In 1977, TCA stuck in a gag photo of Grogo, the mascot of Technique, the student yearbook.  Grogo is a gorilla, and in the interim between King Kong and Donkey Kong, he was a gorilla icon.  However, he appeared in the Picture Book as "Harvey Grogo, Kampala, Uganda".  Ordinarily, this would not be considered humor, but Uganda at the time was ruled by a despot named Idi Amin, and the kind of atrocities he'd committed had already become the butt of a novelty song in which all his backup singers were murdered one by one for not recognizing his greatness.  So a member of the TCA staff thought that was fair game and suggested that Harvey Grogo be the name of a student from Idi Amin's country.

The problem was a failure to communicate.  African and African American students thought the gag photo was insulting and an example of the white stereotype of blacks as gorillas, and they demanded an apology. Those who had published the photo thought it was a bit of innocuous humor about a madman tyrant who was oppressing his long-suffering country.  The MIT Administration did not help matters much when they  published a letter in Tech Talk - an official university publication - "regretting the error." (After they had done something similar with the Consumer Guide, someone at the Harvard Crimson decided that there was a story to be found at that other institution on the other end of Mass. Avenue, and once they reported on it, the genie was out of the bottle).  Heads rolled; in a fit of equity, the student responsible was reprimanded in much the same way that the students who had written and caused the Consumer Guide to be published were reprimanded, and everyone on both sides of the issue was left with a bad taste in their mouths.  Accusations were hurled back and forth between the white and black students that the other side "just didn't understand and couldn't possibly understand".  It was deja vu all over again.

So thursday did the only thing they could do, which is to publish a parody of the Consumer Guide...
...and to this day, somebody regrets the error.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting, Geoff! I was a freshman -- I remember the affair well.

    James Taranto just reported on a similar incident that occurred 10 years later on the left coast: