I once despised being one of only a few black students who attended the University of Michigan. I remember when University recruiters argued with me for over an hour because I wanted to attend historically black Howard University. The prying questions still ring in my head: “Are you crazy? Do you know how many students dream of going to the University of Michigan?” I ultimately enrolled at the University of Michigan, but when I look at the people in my residence hall and classes and at my professors, I wonder what would’ve happened if I had gone to Howard instead, or some other university where the majority of students were black.
After summer orientation, I decided that there was no way I could ever make friends with the snobs who assumed they could relate to me because they listened to Jay-Z or those who asked what part of Detroit I was from as if I was supposed to say Bloomfield Hills. I knew I would never click with the spoiled good ol’ boys who took it upon themselves to shift their conversation from Advanced Placement scores to Tayshaun Prince in order to accommodate me. I soon decided that no matter how much I ate lunch with them in the cafeteria, these people would never understand my culture or me.
Luckily, there were about 10 other black girls living in my dorm my first fall semester at the University. I got along with girls of all races, but I was comforted knowing that there were people who wouldn’t stare at me, bewildered, when I hot combed my hair. The 10 of us were determined to find “everyone else,” so we attended all the events sponsored by black groups. Through these groups, I discovered a hidden community at the University that became my surrogate Howard University.
The official University of Michigan pamphlets I received in the mail never had pictures from black student events, so I was unaware that “we” even existed on campus. Initially, my friends and I didn’t know anyone, but soon faces became familiar and we learned that the community was close knit. I began to recognize that a black student community did not only exist – black students were active leaders, movers, shakers and go-getters. We had taken a large world that had been denied to us for so many years and branded it with our presence. We had become presidents, chairs, advisors, founders, editors and directors of black student organizations and also organizations that we weren’t supposed to have a voice in, from the Michigan Student Assembly to The Michigan Daily.
I finally understood what the recruiters were trying to explain to me during that debate two and a half years ago. At Howard, it would have been easy for me to succeed because I would have been comfortable. However, becoming a leader at the University of Michigan would prepare me for becoming a leader in America, where most people don’t look like me, understand me or want to help me make it to the top. Attending college here at the University would help me understand the reality that although Dr.. Martin Luther King Jr. had the dream, Andrew Young helped draft the agreement and Barbara Jordan encouraged the implementation, my generation would have to work out the kinks of the deal.
As I observe Martin Luther King Day, I have finally realized that I am living Dr. King’s dream. He wanted me to thrive in those environments that didn’t extend me an invitation. He wanted me to excel in places that were considered off-limits. He wanted me to become a familiar face in an unfamiliar place. Unfortunately, while I am one of the lucky ones reaping the benefits of his vision, I worry that the effects of Proposal 2 will attack his dream and black students will disappear from the University of Michigan once again.
Shakira Smiler is an LSA junior.