It is a powerful message that takes courage to deliver. When he first did it, I was afraid that the parents were going to get up and say he was racist. But he was telling the truth. If we are going to make a difference, if we are going to change things, we must be willing to tell the truth. Sometimes we must be willing to say things that make others uncomfortable, not because we are trying to push them into a corner or against the wall, but because we have to get them to think about the issues differently. If we do not bring about this change in thinking, 25 years from now we will still be sitting here saying, “We do not have any blacks on most of the chemistry faculties of research campuses in this country.”
Although companies may be doing a better job than universities in recruiting, companies are still falling short, and they need to do better. We know the demographics. We know that if we are going to be competitive as a nation, we have to talk about the impact of changing demographics in this country.
I want to share a variety of stories with you this evening. It occurred to me that I actually took my first chemistry course in 1964, the summer before my 11th grade year. My mother sent me from Birmingham—where I could not go to school with white kids—to Springfield, Massachusetts, where I had a godmother, to give me a chance to see what it was like to be in class with whites.
I always thought I was the smartest kid who ever lived. I was taught to believe that. My parents pushed me on that because they wanted to counter the idea that I was a second-class citizen. I had gone to jail with Dr. King. I was in the civil rights movement. I led a group of children to jail. I was empowered to do that. I really did feel that I could do anything.
I wanted to see if it was true that white kids knew more than I knew because I kept hearing that in different ways: I had been given books second hand from white schools as a child, and my parents explained to me why that was. So they went out and bought books so that I would not have to use the books that had been given to us second hand from the white schools. My parents did everything they could to help me feel special, which is important for anybody to do well.
At the school in Massachusetts, I expected people to welcome me with open arms in algebra II, chemistry, and literature courses—but nobody ever spoke to me. A few would smile, but they were very uncomfortable. I was the only black, and the teacher never called on me. The first week, I raised my hand every day. I knew the answer, but I was ignored. Southerners are different from people in New England. Southerners are effusive. We are emotional. The New Englanders were much more stoic, and they said “five,” not “fahve.” So, the first thing I had to do was learn how to say “nine,” not “nahn.”
I learned more chemistry in those eight weeks than we covered the entire year in my chemistry course back in Birmingham that next year. It was a powerful lesson for me because I had very dedicated teachers in Birmingham. The chemistry teacher was excellent, and he taught as much as he could, given the background of the students in the class. Do you see my point? There were people who left his chemistry class and went on to places and became physicians, but many others knew very little at the end of the class. He gave us what he could give us, and it was a foundation. That was when I came to understand just how different white schools could be.
When I went to Hampton University, the students who were from northern public schools, private schools, and other countries clearly had a superior educational background compared with mine. But I discovered that nothing takes the place of hard work. That is the difference! I started off in college not having had calculus but having a stronger background in chemistry, due to that one course I had taken during that summer in New England. Clearly, I was behind, but I was accustomed to making As and I was determined to make As.
Now, I tell my students that there is a “low A” and then there is an A they can make when they are able to say, “I know I know this work.” This is making the difference. I always tell them what Descartes said: “Dare to know.” I tell them that they should want to know as much as the faculty member, not just enough to make an A. We talk about “high As” in the Meyerhoff Program. But we do not talk only about