Associated Press Review:
Technology and the Dream:
Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999
MIT Press, $37.95.
Black Physicist Shirley
Jackson remembers being told she couldn't
join study groups in her college dorm. She remembers having to
eat alone in the cafeteria.
And she remembers people calling her Jenny, the name of the only other black woman in her class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). No one cared to learn how to tell them apart.
my motivation was less to 'show them' than to be successful
Jackson, now the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduated from MIT in 1968. Despite all the isolation, she says she felt a need to succeed there. "If one gives up, one is giving those who want to impede success something they want,'' Jackson says. "But my motivation was less to 'show them' than to be successful for myself.''
Jackson's story, and many others, about life as one of the few black students at MIT are recounted in longtime professor ClarenceWilliams' new book, Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999. The massive, 1,042-page book is an unflinching look at racial issues at MIT and in society itself. It took Williams, a professor of urban studies and planning, five years to complete.
"I think it chronicles a history that needs to be told," Jackson says. "We can't let these things get lost. It talks about the transformation of one of the most technological universities in the world. ... It also talks about how one effects change in important institutions, and, in some instances, the price that people pay for success."
Various alumni recount facing discrimination at well-known corporations, growing up in poverty-stricken communities and being told they should settle for menial jobs instead of pursuing an education and a better future.
Though many of the obstacles they faced have been eased, the book also deals with the problems at MIT _ and other academically rigorous institutions that have yet to be solved. Williams writes that his greatest frustration at MIT has been the school's limited effort to monitor and promote equal opportunity. "We identify the best students of color in the country in math and science. That's our specialty," the author says. "We go after them, and we get a large portion of them. I think it's a failure in our part to not be able to groom those individuals in such a way that we could get a reasonable percentage to consider faculty appointments here or at other institutions on the same level."
at that time there was nothing a black could do
Though only 2 percent of MIT tenure-track professors are black, the school has a long history of admitting black students. The first black student to graduate from MIT was Robert Taylor, in 1892.
"Essentially, his community thought it was a useless situation to come to a place like MIT to get a degree and his was in architecture because at that time there was nothing that a black person could do with a degree," Williams notes.
But Taylor didn't listen. By 1900, he was an instructor and an administrator at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Others followed Taylor at MIT. There were roughly a dozen black students at MIT before 1920, and they enrolled at the rate of about one every three years.
they were invisible
In the 1930s and 1940s, however, the number of black students declined sharply. Only 20 or so black students graduated from MIT in those 20 years. Paul Gray, a 1950 graduate who was president of MIT from 1980-1990 and is white, says that when he was a student, he never saw a black student, even though several were in his class.
"They were invisible. My hunch is that there was no sense of community among them," Gray says. ``Now that they represent 7 percent of the undergrads, they are a genuine community, and they act like one.''
Roughly 46 percent of MIT's undergraduates are minority students. Asians make up 27 percent of the student body, and 11 percent are Latinos. Only 1.8 percent are Native American.
The first black faculty member, assistant professor of modern languages Joseph Applegate, began work in 1956. The number of black students began to increase in the late 1960s.
Not all black MIT alumni say they faced discrimination. Gustave S. Solomons Jr., class of 1961, says he did not notice any racism at MIT. Solomons is a former soloist with various dance companies, including Martha Graham, and is now a faculty member of the dance department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. His father also is an MIT graduate.
they saw people treating me differently
"I did not, but my friends did, because they saw people treating me differently,'' Solomons says. ``I did not see it, because I was not looking for it, I guess.''
In some ways, current black MIT students have it easier than their predecessors. An all-male, all-black living group nicknamed "Chocolate City'' was opened with eight students 25 years ago; it now has 30.
"Chocolate City is the reason I came to MIT," says Jonathan White, who will graduate this year. ``The people who lived in Chocolate City made me feel that they were a welcoming support system. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them.''
Students can also join the Black Students Union, founded in the 1960s by, among others, Shirley Jackson. But women have no black living group, and there are few black mentors on campus.
White says that Williams' book could act as a sort of networking system for black students. And what's more important, he says, it could show students how they are connected to black students from the past and how they can achieve in the future.
"This book is just something that we need," White says. "There's nothing of this magnitude (at MIT) that I know about. There's some plaques on the walls, but nothing that black students really hold as a symbol of their achievements.''
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