I have been watching with much interest the twitter posts of students, faculty, and administration under the #BBUM hashtag. Why? Because I was once and again #BBUM: a student, in the 1970s, and a faculty member, now. Exactly forty years ago, I was completing my first semester at U-M, after transferring there from General Motors Institute, now Kettering University. My arrival on the U-M campus came in the aftermath of much upheaval, including the Vietnam war protests and the Black Action Movement strikes. My black classmates and I endured many insults, questions, and accusations during those times, but we were somewhat comforted by the idea that we were carrying on an epic civil rights struggle, and that life would be much better for the generations of students who would follow us. That’s why it is heartbreaking to read that many of the negative things that happened in our day are still happening now. Surely all is not terrible now, and all was not terrible then, but students and professionals alike need a supportive circle of colleagues in order to thrive, not just a few supporters here and there. U-M must continue to work to create and enhance an environment that values and supports black students, not one that makes them feel undeserving and unwelcome.
I was fortunate. I had family members who imbued me with the sense that I could and would succeed no matter what. Despite being made to feel unwelcome, questioned, and accused by some at U-M, I graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and went to work at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Despite sometimes being made to feel unwelcome and undeserving at Bell Labs, I achieved what I needed to achieve there, and left after seven years to start a technology company with two African American colleagues in the basement of my home. Twelve years later, we sold that business, of which we owned 100%, to a British firm for $30 million. I would say that we indeed proved our marketplace value.
I certainly don’t say the above to brag. I say it to make a point: despite what you are experiencing, use your time at U-M to get the knowledge and understanding you need to move forward. Connect with those supportive people in the environment and make them part of your circle. Let them support you, and you support them. Keep your eyes firmly focused on the prize: a career in which you can make a difference in your community and in this world.
My U-M experience made such a heavy impression on me that I made it the subject of an entire section of my book, “Proving Ground: A Memoir.” If I was writing that section today, I would call it #BBUM, and I would call the entire book #BBIA: Being Black in America. I have included one chapter here that tells of an injustice I suffered at U-M, and how I managed to correct it. I could have included much more.
Hope you enjoy the read. You can also click on the book image to get more information about it.