The Scholar and the Streakers
An Egyptian intellectual. Hundreds of naked students. UMass in 1974.
Long before she was a celebrated feminist, activist, scholar, and novelist in her native Egypt, Radwa Ashour ’75PhD was a UMass graduate student in the newly founded W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. The 25-year-old Ashour felt very alone in Amherst at first—so far from everything known and familiar. She found strange “the total greenness of the surroundings” and the women students of the early ’70s in their “tiny cotton blouses hardly as big as your hand.” But before long, Ashour met other foreign students, like her, astute observers of American culture, and she began to feel more at home on campus. Her experience in Amherst and her challenging academic work as the first doctoral graduate of Afro-American studies would influence Ashour, who died in 2014, throughout her life.
In this passage from Ashour’s newly translated memoir, The Journey (Interlink Books, 2018), she describes watching as hundreds of UMass students streaked through Southwest in March 1974. Ever serious, Ashour considers the sociological implications of streaking—but she also enjoys the rowdy UMass scene.
The seven o’clock evening news on television reported that the phenomenon of group streaking had started spreading at universities—students at the University of North Carolina had achieved a record number when more than three hundred male and female students ran around together totally naked at one time. News reports are for people to listen to, process, and be affected by. So not even one day had passed when announcements were hung all over the university that Southwest, the largest student residence on campus, and Prince House as well, had decided to hold a streaking party. This meant the participants getting naked together, setting off at eleven o’clock at night from their meeting point in Southwest, running together naked to the university Campus Center, going inside, and then returning. The news excited everyone on campus, both those who wanted to participate and those who wanted to watch. As for my group of friends, all of whom were foreign observers of this American scene, we laughed like old folks making fun of young people at a wedding. We thought, “Why don’t we also have our own little party at that time? We can eat, drink, and dance in the classroom that looks out over the Southwest towers and then when it’s time for the event we can look out the window, and participate by watching!”
When I saw my two Iranian friends armed with cameras, I remarked jokingly: “I see that you are going to take some improper photos!” One of them responded with a laugh, “Indeed! Photographs witness a place and a time.”
“Actually, what bothers me the most about these young people being naked for no understandable reason is that they will be exposed to the bitter cold. And tomorrow they will probably all wake up with pneumonia!”
Photo and excerpt reprinted with permission from The Journey: Memoirs of an Egyptian Woman Student in America by Radwa Ashour, translated by Michelle Hartman. Copyright © Interlink Books, 2018.