There is a series of shirts worn by black students on campus that feature a silhouetted black fist and a message that includes black@umich.edu; I have two of them. When I wear one of my black@umich.edu shirts around campus it’s me claiming my identity. When I began wearing one last year I would get looks from all over the place, the majority of the looks being from people of other ethnicities not knowing what to make of me wearing my shirt. The first incarnation of the shirt also included the statement “don’t be alarmed” under the fist; I desperately want people to heed that statement. I never want to alienate all the people of other ethnicities I come into contact with on a daily basis. For me, the purpose of the shirt isn’t to scare or intimidate, rather to – stealing a line from the movie “Bull Durham” – “announce my presence with authority.”

Sarah Royce

I’m under the impression that the strange looks I get when wearing my shirt are a result of the clinched fist in the middle of the shirt. That fist represents Black Power, it is the same fist Tommie Smith and John Carlos threw in the air at the 1968 Summer Olympics. On a very personal level, that fist is an affirmation of my own humanity. It is a slap in the face to the neo-Nazis whose presence ignited the riots in Toledo a week and a half ago. It is a symbol that can be confusing to those whose only exposure to black people is from BET and ESPN. It is a symbol that can be frightening to those who have only a limited understanding of the urban riots/rebellions that took place in the 1960s when the concept of Black Power was just beginning to pick up steam.

There are those in the world that believe that any assertion of power by blacks is inherently and overtly anti-white – I believe that opinion is flawed. When I engage in an act that can be considered an assertion of power, it is with the intent to ensure the playing field is truly level. To be quite honest, I look forward to the day when skin color is closer to the importance of hair color. Getting past all the ridiculous baggage that goes along with racial tension will allow society to focus on things that truly matter. Society could turn more energy toward education, urban design issues, regional governmental cooperation, environmental sustainability and economic growth. I really would like to see Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas of freedom and equality come to fruition. I just know that we will have to use some of the philosophies from Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael to get there. Black people have not yet fully answered the call from the latter half of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement to be self-evaluated and self-determined. When I wear my black@umich.edu shirt, that is one aspect of me doing my part to answer that call.

Throughout history many black people have been compelled to hide their intelligence. This dates back to the days when it was illegal for blacks to be literate. Another historical note is that before the Civil Rights Movement it was fairly commonplace for very light-complexioned blacks to try and pass as white. Although I am nowhere near light enough to pass, the whole concept befuddles me. I would never want to hide my blackness; instead I choose to celebrate it. I would never want to hide my intelligence; instead I seek to deepen and develop it in almost all I do. I consider myself an intelligent black man. That designation is not yet normalized in society at large, making it seem as though intelligent black people are few and far between. When I wear my black@umich.edu shirt I am announcing to the world that I am an intelligent black man and proud of that fact.

I wear my black@umich.edu shirt with the hope that when my younger brother goes to college he won’t feel the constant need to prove his competence. I wear it with the hope that he’ll have to answer a few less questions about being on the basketball or football team because that’s the only reason people think a large black man could be on a college campus. I wear my shirt with the hope that my young cousins can feel comfortable aspiring to be an intellectual member of society as opposed to solely aspiring to be NBA stars. I wear my shirt because I am an intelligent black man and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Betts can be reached at djmbetts@umich.edu.

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