“It is hard adjusting here because there are so many people who do not look like me, and the first thing people do is judge me by my appearance, my skin color.”
When asked what was the hardest part of their first year at the University of Michigan, every Black student responded with this answer in one way or another.
Your melanin-enriched skin is a target you carry with you each day of your life. What separates you from the crowd of people you pass on the Diag, what makes you the only person in your chemistry class and what narrows you down to 5 percent on a campus of about 46,000. Your Blackness is something the world will never let you forget, especially on a campus where there are few spaces for your Blackness to be unapologetically itself.
However, life was not always like this…
The year is 1979 and the Black population is 8 percent at the University, near double today’s.
It was a group effort across campus: the Black Student Union, the Black Law Student Association, the Association of Black Social Work Students and Black students from the University medical and psychology schools. Each organization came together to create the Black Action Movement (BAM) to manifest change for students who faced marginalization for their skin color on a daily basis. They demanded the University increase the Black population to 10 percent, in order to reflect the state of Michigan’s Black resident population at the time, and to overall increase the representation and awareness of Black students on campus.
Through strikes that often lasted up to a week and protests with students passionately holding signs and chanting, seven years of enraged passion at the University’s failure to create a campus for students of color were finally recognized. Professors canceled classes until students’ demands were met and the faculty and staff worked to create changes that were insisted after years of failure to recognize their Black students. Lasting from 1970 to 1987, BAM I, BAM II and BAM III progressively worked to increase the Black population and bring attention to the concerns of harassment, racial tension and discrimination on campus.
Though the University never did reach 10 percent enrollment, programs like the multicultural lounges in each dorm and living/learning communities exclusively for Black students arose as a result of the BAM movements that took place in the early ’80s — places like the Ambatana Lounge in South Quad Residence Hall. Black students finally had spaces to escape from the everyday racism of campus — spaces just for us.
Spades, UNO and of course … the kid that flipped the Monopoly board over because he did not want to pay rent to the rest of his opponents. This was how my parents met.
Long nights in the Ambatana Lounge in South Quad. Spontaneous step-shows between rival Greek organizations in the middle of Angell Hall as students walked to class. Soul Train Lines that formed on Friday nights in the cafeteria of Mary Markley Residence Hall. Basketball courts full of late night pick-up games. These were unforgettable memories for students like my parents. They found camaraderie in the living communities that brought Black students together from different parts of the country. Through funded trips to attend movie premieres and snacks for their lounges provided by the council, the Black community grew closer.
Black history at the University of Michigan is complicated, affirmative action ended in 2006 and the Supreme Court upheld the ban after a momentous 6-2 vote. The Black population at the University dropped dramatically, and with that came the end of an era.
The Black living/learning communities that created friendships among Black students who lived just across the hall from each other disappeared. The lounges that were once centralized places for Black students to easily socialize with others of their own community until the early hours of the morning slowly grew empty. This is a result of the scattering of Black students across campus. With the loss of the living communities, connections that were formed by living next door to one another were broken. It was much harder to meet Black people who lived in different parts of campus, especially since the already miniscule number of students continues to falter. A diminishing population could no longer sustain the elements that made it home for so many.
A look into the Past…
I interviewed a few alumni about their experiences at the University. This is what they said:
The Athlete (1999-2003):
“My experience at the University of Michigan was different because I was a public figure and so people were more willing to come up and talk to me than what was the case for most of the Black community. I was approached and asked questions because I was the face for the University, for the basketball team. However, I knew at the end of the day that I would always have a community to come back to after long days of practice when I walked into South Quad. There was always someone flipping over a chair because they were losing at Spades, and I remember those days as being the best moments of my college career. ”
The Sigma (1979-1984):
“Being here from 1979 to 1984 was the peak for the Black community, we had the largest Phi Beta Sigma pledge line the University had ever seen and it was exhilarating being a part of something so special. Learning the steps and staying up late practicing with my Line Brothers, the parties, and competitions we used to perform in; those are the moments I will never forget. I made friends for life during my time here, and I wish everyone could have a piece of what I had during undergrad.”
The Socialite (1979-1983):
“Although I was not a part of any clubs, I had the time of my life here. The lounge is where I met my best friends, beat people in Spades, and tried to learn Calc. Being at the University of Michigan gave me the confidence I needed to succeed in the real world. The programs in the dorms that created activities for the Black kids helped me to find people who experienced the world like I did. Although, I wish that it was something that all minorities had because creating a space for people who are marginalized is so important in this world.”
The lounges remain, but the historical context and the memories of those who once occupied these spaces do not. The multicultural lounges now serve as spaces where members of non-marginalized communities can enter.
With the recent removal of a short orientation requirement for use of multicultural lounges like CAMEO in Couzens and the Ambatana Lounge in South Quad, the history and camaraderie that once centralized Black students and other minorities alike is now forgotten. Ambatana, the lounge named for the Swahili term “stick together,” has unfortunately lost its meaning when students began referring to it as the “Afro-American Lounge.” With the decreased use of these lounges by minority students and the fear of creating spaces that were “too exclusive,” the lounges had to accommodate students from the entire campus, including those who made us feel unwelcomed. A door closed on history is now silenced by the effort to create inclusiveness, but takes away from the meaning of what created these safe places, to begin with.
Ironically, the most notable difference is what remains invisible to us all: the immense number of kids who were denied the opportunity to attend this University because affirmative action was voted out. Considering that the state of Michigan currently has a population of 14.2 percent Black/African American residents according to the 2017 census report, it does not make much sense as to why our University’s Black population is so small. Black students especially have lost the opportunity that they once had to attend one of the highest-ranked universities in the country. For Black students like my parents, education paved a pathway to a lifestyle outside of the one that society fabricated for them. We will never know the accomplishments of students who were denied the opportunity to attend this University: a chilling reality we all need to face.
Efforts to create a community for the Black population by the Black Student Union, the National Pan-Hellenic Council and many other Black organizations on campus should not be overlooked. For example, the screening of “Black Panther” put on by BSU united Black students from around the campus. NPHC events highlight the tradition and the importance of Black Greek life, and academic groups like the National Society of Black Engineers bring Black engineers together in a field that lacks Black representation. Without the tireless ventures from these programs that help bond the Black students at the University of Michigan, we certainly would not feel as united.
Black History Month might be over, and soon the school year will conclude with melting snow and longer days. Before we know it, our time as students will come to an end. The moments we share and relationships we build are a testament to our community. Simply because we know what it means to overcome the targets placed on our backs by society and the outside world as a whole. Simply because our journey to defy what has been fabricated to deter us will never be easy. Simply because having a supportive community that unifies us through every moment of our journey is imperative to our success in a world of homogeneity.
Simply because … We matter.
A special thank you those who were interviewed for this piece; without you, this would not be possible.
Listings of Multicultural Lounges in every dorm
*Swahili meaning is italicized*
· Ambatana (Stick Together) or Afro-American Lounge and Yuri Kochiyama Lounge: South Quad
· CAMEO (Couzens Active Minority Ethnic Organization): Couzens
· Asubuhi (Morning): West Quad
· Umoja (Unity) and Vicky Barner Lounge: Alice Lloyd
· MLK Jr. Lounge: Bursley
· Abeng (Conch Shell): East Quad
· Angela Davis Lounge and Aarti Sharangpani Lounge: Markley
· Grace Lee Boggs Lounge: Baits
· Nikki Giovanni Lounge and César Chávez Lounge: Mosher Jordan
· Audre Lorde Lounge: Newberry Residence
· Mahatma Ghandi Lounge: Oxford
· Rosa Parks Lounge: Stockwell
· Edward Said Lounge: North Quad