All my life, I’ve wanted to be the one who stands on the pulpit and delivers the victory message. I’ve dreamed of marching up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial like Martin Luther King Jr., telling America that I belong, that I am meant to be here and that I am a human being that deserves fundamental rights. I’ve longed to protest in the streets, screaming until the hoarseness in my throat overtakes my vocal cords and I gasp for breath.
Yet, I’ve accomplished none of those things. Perhaps because I am scared, perhaps because I feel insignificant but most likely because I feel that I am a fraud, that I’ll never correct the dissonance between my dreams and reality.
I always thought that college would be better. That the perils of high school life and the apprehension that I had once felt would seemingly vanish away with the Ann Arbor wind. Approaching my first days as a Wolverine, I planned to truly be myself, to involve myself in activism by joining the Black Student Union and try to find a Black community that I had previously lacked at other academic institutions.
But during the fall of my first year at the University of Michigan, when the news first came out about BSU’s “More Than Four: The 4 Point Platform” and the trashing of their posters on the sidewalk, I felt a pang of immediate guilt — like I had somehow contributed to the problem. Despite the many times that I had written down, “Attend BSU meeting,” in the colorfully lined pages of my planner, despite the many mental notes that I had ingrained in the depths of my amygdala, I had not attended a single one.
I’m a fake.
Fake activist. Yes, that is what I would classify myself as. In high school, I assumed the position of being the “poster child,” a Black girl who would say just the right number of harsh truths to get away with still being liked by the school administration. I dealt the cards by selecting my words with the utmost caution, always making sure to counteract phrases with an idealized version, painting them into a silhouette, devoid of any real meaning, saying at the end of every sentence, “We need to love everyone.” It was a kind of self-censorship born out of a fear of being rejected by peers, and by my PWI school.
On the night the news of the torn BSU posters hit, I was scrolling on my phone, perusing the Michigan Daily Instagram debrief. Mindlessly clicking through the stories, I began to see repost after repost of the same photo: posters shredded to bits, scattered across the cold sidewalk, and dirtied by the footsteps of students. Clicking on the photo brought me to the original one posted by @umich.bsu — a numbing scene of posters with the phrase “Care about Black Students” torn and littered on the edge of the sidewalk. This was just 24 hours after the BSU had a public address in which they addressed their Four Point Platform, arguing for the advocacy of Black voices at the University and for their concerns not only to be heard but acted upon by the administration.
There are four main issues that the BSU wants the University to address.
First: Increase Black student enrollment, specifically to reflect the percentage of the state of Michigan’s Black population of 14%.
Second: The University should explicitly plan out ways to combat anti-Blackness within the school community and in the school system.
Third: Rectify the weaknesses of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan that is often not effective for Black students.
Fourth: Increase University responsibility and priority to fund kindergarten through 12th grade education in the state of Michigan and to address systemic racism and inequities present in the system.
When I first learned about these efforts from the BSU, I was amazed to see everything that the Union was doing for the Black community here at the University. Here they were, rallying and calling out the leaders and systems of the University, highlighting how their silence was louder than any opposition. And here I was, almost halfway through my first semester at U-M, and still not one meeting under my belt.
I could blame my lack of attendance on the business of my schedule, or on the hours I needed to spend studying organic chemistry. But none of those excuses seemed to make up for the feeling of fake activism that I had.
The pursuit for Black voices to be heard at the University has been a consistent struggle in recent decades. Before the advent of the BSU at the University, there was BAM, the Black Action Movement. In the 1970s, Black students called out the racism and discrimination within the university system through sit-in protests, demonstrations on the University president’s lawn and rallies in the plaza outside the Fleming Administration Building. Their efforts were primarily concerned with increasing minority enrollment, getting rid of the designation of Black students as “negro” and an aim that the student body would be 10% Black by 1973.
Half a century later, Black students at the University are continuing to fight for this same demand: the demand to be treated as equals by the administration, and have their demands not only listened to — but advocated for. The pivotal moment of BAM’s advocacy happened early in the morning of Friday, March 27, 1970, at around 5 a.m., when the first day of what would be a 13-day strike began.
AMFSCE, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, was a key advocate of BAM’s missions. AMFSCE denied the crossing of picket lines and was a major contributor to the University’s agreement to “compromise” on BAM’s demands. When presenting their list of 12 demands to administration, they denied almost all of them but upheld that they would increase Black enrollment to at least 7%. These protests continued two times after, in 1975 and 1987. Now, here we are — just over 50 years later since BAM first protested for Black students at the University to be prioritized and cared for, and without much progress to show for it.
During all of the BAM movements, many of the priorities listed in all of the agendas included first increasing Black enrollment to 10%, combating the racist climate of the University and reallocating University funding to actively combat racism. The University has since failed to meet these demands, specifically that of Black enrollment, as the population of Black students at the University has substantially decreased from 7% in 2006 to a current 4.2% in 2021.
I want to be like them. I want to be like the BAM activists, the BSU leaders and the generators of change for the future of minority students at this university. I want to stand firm and unapologetic at the hands of authority, and yet, I think back to how I was during middle school and high school, afraid of what others would think of me.
I’m scared about what I will do, what I will say, how I will act. For so many years, I’ve cared too much about what others thought of me, and a part of me truly still does. At my predominantly white high school, I tried to put on the role of activist, hanging posters for Black History Month, Native American History Month and all the heritage months, crafting announcements for all of the cultural holidays, “fun” facts and statistics that I knew would cause relatively little opposition from my classmates or peers because they were not “controversial.”
Yet, what I didn’t talk about was how 49% of Native American homes lack basic clean water, stemming from genocide and colonization from white settlers and a racist system. Because how could people then act as if nothing was wrong?
Appeased, abated, complacent — whatever you want to call it: I am guilty of it. I have tried to wash my hands of the dark red stain that pigments my skin, yet the color never seems to fade.
But, what use is it to feel guilty? What use is it to let it eat away at me when I could be doing so much more?
The More Than Four Point Platform is not just a mere list of desires or requirements by the BSU. More than anything, it represents the continual struggle of Black and minority voices to be heard and how the hands of the administration have silenced their voices by inaction. Over 50 years since the BAM’s conception, the movement still continues.
I don’t hope to be a part of it. I will be a part of it. And that is a promise to myself, now in ink in every paper dancing across this campus.
Statement Columnist Chinwe Onwere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.