An Open Letter to
Michael Drake, UC President
Carol Christ, UC Chancellor,
Kamala Harris,Vice Presidential Nominee,
It is not possible for me to think of myself without thinking of the U of C and what opportunities it provided
—Dr. Michael Drake
I wish to congratulate you on being the first African American president of the UC system. I wish to simply say that as an African American man, who came to U C Berkeley in 1970, that I identify with the journey that you have made.
Your arrival to this esteemed position is followed by the announcement of Senator Kamala Harris as the nominee of Vice President on the Joe Biden ticket.
Your journey, the journey of any black man born in America, was up from chattel slavery. Every black person in this country empathized with the bitter fruit of our slave past. It was a dim time because slavery robbed us of our identity and made us think of ourselves as being inferior to others.
In my case, when I think of my early childhood education, I see a white colonial mansion standing on the banks of the Cape Fear River, near Wilmington, N.C. This “big house” was built by one General Thomas Brown in 1805. Uncle Archie Hatcher, my grandmother’s first cousin, took care of it. When we made visits to him, Uncle Archie, who was the descendant of enslaved people, told us children about the history of the plantation. One day, he pointed to one of the bricks on the building: the name ‘Brown’ was etched into it. They were markers because he had the bricks shipped from England. I wanted to know why we have the same name as on the bricks. Because, Uncle Archie explained, we were owned by General Brown from 1805 until 1865.
In segregated North Carolina in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, we had no textbooks that explained who Thomas Brown was and what he meant to us.
We had Uncle Archie to explain the connection between those bricks and our family name, but I still didn’t really understand the connection until he revealed we had been slaves on the plantation. We were the ‘Black’ Browns—not the ‘White’ Browns.
Not far from the plantation, up the river, so to speak, is a hamlet called Raeford, and this is where George Floyd was born and raised. (Raeford is small 4,500), and, like my town (600), it, too, was in the shadow of a plantation.
Like John Lewis, I was, a sharecropper’s son. John Lewis went to the Black Lives Matter plaque in D.C. and said, “before I die, I wanted to praise George Floyd.” He, too, a sharecropper’s son. All three of us came up from segregation, stepbrothers to slavery.
George Floyd, John Lewis and I lived the lives we lived, for a simple reason: because we were descended from slavery.
The harsh, bleak reality of sharecropping and segregation meant, among other misalliances, that there was no money for a single drama class. I had never heard of Shakespeare, or even knew anybody who had, until I went to college. When I was about fifteen or so, I began to perform magic shows in the school auditorium. My teachers’— Mr. McNiel, Mr. Adams, Mrs Laws—reaction to my shows was strange to me. They told me that since I was such a talented magician, I might think of going to college. (It had never occurred to me that there was much of a connection.) They had such confidence in me that if I took the SAT, they were sure I would do well. The problem was that the exam was given in Wilmington, about forty miles away. In segregation society, blacks are not given any opportunities at all. The best you could hope for was that some teachers would discover your spark of genius and would breathe it into a flame.
In my case, I borrowed (or stole) my Uncle Lofton’s truck, drove to Wilmington, and took the exam. When I received the letter from A & T (Now the University of North Carolina) college that I had a full scholarship, I took that letter to my father, who was still plowing his mule in the field. I waited for him to read it. He was both happy for me and sad. He was sad that he was losing a plowboy. But he was happy that his son was going to college. (My two buddies got scholarships, too.)
When I got to A & T, there were thousands of young black students like me, who had no idea what a revolution this experience would be for them. Among those students was one Jesse Jackson. He was a few years older than me and was leading a student movement against the Woolworth store down on Market street in Greensboro. We were excited to learn that what made us poor and ignorant was a deliberate policy by our country to keep us that way.
I was impressed by my professors who were black, brilliant, and encouraging. I was especially influenced by my English professor, Darwin T. Turner, who had earned a masters degree in English at the University of Cincinnati at 16; a masters at 18, and a PhD in English from the University of Chicago at age 25. He lectured us in Melville, Poe, as well as Langston Hughes—and Shakespeare!
I still remember the excitement of being able to read a book without feeling guilty about eating into my father’s plowing time. I was impressed that I had used my brains to transfer the physical drudgery of farm life into the life of a scholar, and activist.
As soon as we began to read books, we started examining the social world around us. We saw the inequality of the world of segregation that existed outside the campus. I participated with my classmate Jesse Jackson in the Woolworth Sit-in.
When I came to Berkeley in 1970, I brought this desire to learn with me. This desire and power of the mind, I shared with millions of others in America, for the Civil Rights struggle was at its zenith. The Sit-in that had desegregated the South, which had started in Greensboro, NC by A&T students, had found its way to the West Coast, to San Francisco State University to Merritt College in Oakland and to UC Berkeley.
When I came to teach at UC Berkeley in 1970, the university officials resisted hiring me, but the English Department’s Professor Lawrence Ziff (and the Black Students) wanted me, and so I was hired. The African-American Literature class I taught was overflowing at the door, and drew black students and white students from all over the campus. There was a genuine acceptance of African American literature and Ethnic Studies.
It was during this burst of openness that many immigrant students—like Kamala Harris’s parents from Jamaica and India—came to UC Berkeley to study and teach. The negative reaction to all of this came in the form of the Bakke case in the mid-seventies, and that set up the coup d’être that occurred in 1996 with Prop 209. I remember walking up a steep incline to the auditorium where the voting took place, and running into Jesse Jackson, who still remembering the sit-ins, took his place on the stage. The vote came back; we had lost by a few votes.
The results of Prop 209 on Black students were immediate and devastating. The incoming freshmen class was cut down to 2%, according to Larry Gordon’s article, “California Prepares for a Return to Affirmative Action,” June 22, 2020.
“Still, African American students reached about 5% of UC’s enrollment before 1996,” Mr. Gordon reported. I believe that the black enrollment was more than 5%—more like 20%.
You could walk across campus without seeing a single Asian student, just as you could walk across campus before it closed this year and not see a single black student.
But after 209 passed, the black student population “dipped,” according to Mr. Gordon, “to 3% in some years after and has not gotten above 4% since.”
As the number of white students and black students fell, Asian and Hispanic numbers rose—dramatically. How dramatically? According to Mr. Gordon’s article, “Asians becoming the largest ethnic group at U C system and Asian and Pacific Islanders now comprise 33% of UC undergraduates, the largest share of any racial group.”
In the seventies, the energy from blacks students opened up the university to blacks and forced UC to be open to foreign elite third world, Kamala Harris whose father was a professor at here at UC. Black people fought for this openness, even as the UC regents fought to keep them out.
The passage of 209 cut the soul out of UC. After 209, it all changed. We lost the gains we had from that incredible freedom and energy that students gained from the Civil Rights struggle.
If you doubt me, ask somebody who was there—our able Chancellor Carol Christ, who wants to bring back affirmative action.
This is why I salute the Chancellor because she wants to restore to U C the excitement of having the university open to Black students, men in particular, for they suffered the most.
In the last century, blacks were kept out of the world of literate technology. The media scholar Marshall McLuhan explained it this way: The literate folk looked on the oral folk as an inferior citizen but Professor McLuhan maintained it was the oral person who held the advantage in the digital world.
What African American students need today is access into the digital world, both in the academy and the Digital Industry.
We are crossing a new frontier, a new border zone, crossing from the literate world to the Digital World.
I used digital tools in a history class I taught here at U C. One of my students stands out, because he found in digital maps and animations a better way to research a topic on the Atlantic Slave Trade and easier than writing a ten page paper. Raised in South Central Los Angeles by a single mother, Kaleb struggled with ten page papers, but was a whiz with digital learning.
He persuaded two of his frat brothers to join my digital history class—a Mexican student, Jose; and Thomas, a white student. I loved seeing them come to class, as I imagined them to be the future.
A year later I emailed Kaleb to find out if he was taking anymore Digital Humanities classes. Apologizing that he took a while to answer my email, he sadly informed me that he was not longer at UC. Did he enjoy the digital humanities class? Oh, yes, he loved it. The problem was that he worked all summer to pay for his fall classes and then he had to work all fall to get the money to pay for the spring classes. “I got tired of busting my ass so that I could pay UC,” he wrote me.
Somewhere in all this he realized that, he told me, he couldn’t afford to be at UC, and he took a job as a guard in law enforcement. (This was painful to me because he had once given a presentation in class and I said that his mother would be proud of him and he said she would be. And your father would be proud too, I said. He had never seen his father, he told the whole class, only a picture of him a line-up.)
Fifty years ago, we could just study literacy, but today we need to prepare our students for the world we all live in.
[I WONDER WHY THIS IS SO HARD FOR LEADERS TO UNDERSTAND]
Mr. President, perhaps it is worth remembering that there are so many young black men and women, like young men who come from places like George Floyd, John Lewis and I, who are deserving of your attention. Please do not forget them because our future depends on turning our young people into students of digital culture; and let us leave the Jim Crow era behind and enter the world of Jim Code; let us try to include them in the future.
I thank you and Godspeed.
In spirit of George Floyd and John Lewis,
We can’t breathe!