Michigan in Color: #BBUM and Sankofa— Looking Back to Move Forward
Today marks the second anniversary of the launch of the #BBUM Twitter campaign. The hashtag and its acronym, which stands for Being Black at the University of Michigan, was used during one of the early precursors to the recent protests that are occurring across the nation. As a University alum, I fully understood what led the students in 2013 to speak up and express themselves through the use of a Twitter campaign.
This university has long experienced various forms of racial tension, which isn’t surprising given the nation’s ongoing struggles in dealing with W.E.B. Du Bois’ brilliant assessment of “the problem of the color-line.” Michigan is a public university that attracts people from all over the world, and for many it’s the first time they are exposed to new and different cultures, which results in awkward situations and interactions. Being African American in such a setting can be particularly frustrating because although many of our families have been citizens of this country for hundreds of years, we still experience discrimination, both subtle and overt.
In 2013, members of the Black community were deeply affected by racist incidents that had occurred on campus, and held a Freeze Out on the Diag to address these issues. When the leadership of the Black Student Union came to me as their faculty adviser to strategize ways to express how they were feeling, I felt a strange sense of deja vu.
I remembered the bittersweet sound of my mother’s voice speaking about how she roomed with other young Black women on Catherine Street because she wasn’t permitted to live in the dormitories. Despite her own treatment, my mother took great pride in being a Wolverine, and encouraged my sister and me to attend her alma mater.
My own memories as an alum mirrored my mother’s mixed emotions during my undergraduate and graduate career in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Back then, I encountered confrontations in the classroom originating from both faculty and other students who would assume my presence was due to affirmative action. I had actually won a prestigious scholarship from the Detroit Institute of Arts to study the history of art. Constant remarks about being “well-spoken for someone from Detroit” led me to seek solace within the Black Student Union and to find safe spaces on campus which would affirm and empower me, such as the Center (now Department) for Afroamerican and African Studies.
Discovering racist scrawls on the door of my dorm room and seeing gorillas hanging in effigy in the Diag was devastating, but my mother comforted me by explaining that these were signs of ignorance and that I was at school to awaken and illuminate my mind. She, along with empathetic faculty and friends, offered consolation and noted the benefits of attending this University, not the least of which that it was a powerful introduction to everyday racism. I grew stronger and less shocked by the behavior I witnessed. Eventually, I gained the confidence to find my voice, and in speaking up, discovered others who shared my perspectives regardless of their class, creed or color.
Returning from my memories, I listened as the students described utilizing the traditional methods of mobilization, including wearing black as a sign of solidarity, attending the Freeze Out: Follow Up Forum to speak out for social justice and papering the posting wall with statements about their experiences.
Then it happened. One of the students contacted me and alerted me to sign on to Twitter and follow #BBUM. What I saw there defied description. All of my experiences attending the University — both positive and negative — were scrolling past me in a burst of tweets that left me breathless.
The use of social media as the method of communication within this brilliant campaign expanded the range of the participants. The tweets began with current students, then faculty, staff and even administration joined the online discussion. Eventually alumni chimed in, some like myself saddened that many of the same situations that we had undergone were still happening at the campus we had once considered our home. The academic in me started analyzing the tweets: some were angry, some staunch in their support of the students, while others stood firmly decrying any difference between treatment between and among races.
Others sent messages of support and solidarity. The numbers grew until even the students who began the campaign were astonished at the ongoing wave of responses. One thing was certain: the responding Wolverines were honest in their appraisal of the time spent in the land of maize and blue. There was no shortage of opinions from those within and outside the campus walls. Anyone with access to Twitter could participate — and they did!
The media took note and began reporting on the hashtag, its meaning and the Twitter campaign. People from all over the country and beyond were sending messages and #BBUM went viral. The students involved were interviewed by newspapers, radio stations and television. It was a chaotic time, stressful and relentless, but the tweets kept on coming.
The West African Ghanaian Adinkra term Sankofa means “return and get it,”
or looking back to move forward. Prior to and throughout the campaign, students researched the previous demands presented by the previous Black Action Movements on campus. In addition, they compiled the coded responses from the Twitter campaign and created a list of demands. These were presented in front of Hill Auditorium at the conclusion of the MLK keynote speech in January 2014. The gauntlet had been dropped, and the real talk and hard work of negotiating for a better, more inclusive campus community would begin.
Today, the students continue to work with administration on those same demands, which ultimately is the true sign of a movement, not just a moment frozen in time. My pride in their tenacity is unwavering, and I’m constantly inspired by their resilience. On the surface level, some progress has occurred in terms of a shift in campus climate since #BBUM with the powerful conversations and mobilization efforts that have continued and grown. Part of the problem stems from the rapid response rate and accessible nature of the Internet that fueled #BBUM also leaves social media open to racists who can hide behind pseudonyms. Still, I remain staunchly committed to a more inclusive University, for as my mother wisely advised me, although the struggle is daunting, an equitable society is the right of every human. The promise of a more diverse pool of future Wolverines leaves me hopeful that the dreams of the first students of color who attended Michigan as well as those who protested after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated will one day become reality.
Sidebar: Dr. Ibram Kendi author of “The Black Campus Movement,” has pointed out the dearth of research on the subject of what is deemed the Black Campus Movement. He notes, “The historical literature on the BCM has burst onto the scene over the last thirteen years since Wayne Glasker’s “Black Students in the Ivory Tower” (2002) at the University of Pennsylvania and Joy Williamson-Lott’s “Black Power on Campus” (2003) on the University of Illinois. In 2009, Stefan Bradley released “Harlem vs. Columbia.” In 2010, Fabio Rojas’s “From Black Power to Black Studies” appeared and Jeffrey Turner’s "Sitting In and Speaking Out" shared some stories of the BCM in the South. In 2012, three more studies hit libraries, Martha Biondi’s “The Black Revolution on Campus,” and the special issue in the Journal of African American Studies on the origins of Black studies, edited by Jonathan Fenderson, James B. Stewart, and Kabria Baumgartner. Richard D. Benson’s “Fighting for Our Place in the Sun” came out in 2014, giving a better picture of Malcolm X’s influence on Black student activism in North Carolina. DAAS looks forward to co-sponsoring an event featuring Lawrence Ross, author of “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses,” on February 16, 2016, with with MESA, Housing, and the Office of Greek Life. Ross's work includes interviews with UM students, along with others across the nation.
Elizabeth James is a University of Michigan alum, BA ’82, MA ’84.