Threads pulled though: University of Michigan 1960-1964 to Now

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When I arrived in Ann Arbor, we were a few months away from the Nixon-Kennedy election. By the time LBJ ran against Goldwater in 1964, John Kennedy was dead and Martin Luther King from the Birmingham Jail had reminded the country that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Zoology I was a semester of revolutionary lessons on RNA and DNA and how they would alter human life forever, and, as a way of balancing that future, was a year of Plato’s ancient questions and Aristotle’s systems for delineating justice, beauty, logic and truth. It did not cross my mind as I worked my way through electives taught and written largely by white men that they were not worth studying: Homer, Albert Camus, William Shakespeare, Otto Rudolf, John Locke, Emanuel Kant, Herman Hesse, and a few culturally more distant, Maimonides and Ibn Khaldun. What I mean is I loved analyzing them, and while I had strong feelings about exclusions and injustice in the social fabric, I had not made many links or demands on the canon. It took time, decades, to see that as the social fabric was being torn apart, those silences and lacunae and assumptions would appear as biases to be corrected—or, better, to be seen in different contexts. In 1960, civil rights for African Americans was the burning core of our societal concerns when black students in the south started protesting. Those eruptions drew northern students of all colors into the social movement. As groups formed and splintered, as the Viet Nam draft grew, other interconnected issues like women’s rights, sexual preference, and poverty sent student activism in many, often conflicting directions.  

Let’s start with a few caveats about memory. I won’t be too critical about the reliability of the narrator. As a writer she will try to be objective. She is still in a dialectic with those years, full of sharp and unimaginable awakenings. But she is not nostalgic. The river is always never the same. It’s always demanding, always asking that energy be found in the exciting currents and dark swirling waters. 

Are you sure that was Pete Seager singing on the Diag when you crossed it in the early morning?  And did most of your 38 records come with you—Leadbelly, and Odetta and Woody Guthrie? If that’s so, who let you use their record player?  And you… I know you sang, “If I had a Hammer,” and “A Hard Rain’s Goin Fall,” with amazing regularity in whatever shower you were in. You’d heard Joan Baez did that too. And you grew long hair, and your mother cried when you came home at Christmas, telling you that you were a beatnik and a witch. You were a Republican when you left home in suburban Wauwatosa, in spite of Milwaukee’s forty years of having a socialist mayor. Your father had tried to convince you to fear socialism in nearly anything collective. Yet in a matter of months, after recovering, because your parents were hurt and uncertain and had left you on the curb in front of a dorm and a campus none of you had ever seen, the seniors in Victor Vaughn had you turned toward New York, FDR, James Baldwin and Paul Celan. 

I don’t remember who stressed the seriousness of our endeavor in the ceremony welcoming us as freshman in the LSA school. The official said: Look around.  The person on your left and the person on your right will no longer be part of this class four years from now. Only one in three of you will be here to graduate. You will be expected to maintain a passing grade point average, to resolve your Incompletes within one semester, to fulfill the general requirements in the first two years, and to meet the ethical and social standards outlined by the University. There was sobriety and a strong sense of adults being distinctly separate from who we were as students.

Now that I’ve taught at universities, I’ve had students threaten me if I gave them a B that would mar their record. We wouldn’t have dared in my years. We marched, we got arrested, but perhaps that was in part because authority was clearly demarked; social limits had layers of protocols as did the books we read.  Women didn’t think it was possible to report professors who turned the keys in their office doors and clumsily whispered, I can’t help myself. We were the ones held culpable. We could be expelled if we reached the dorm three times in one semester a stroke after midnight. We had bed checks, sign-ins and outs. Yet women were not passive and there were adaptations to rules. My freshman year, many senior women, when most were asleep, left Victor Vaughan through ground floor windows.  In loco parentis was still a doctrine at the University. It was withdrawn in my junior year. 

The first time I participated in a sit-in in front of Woolworths, I ran, when the police appeared. As the activism continued, that fear and the importance of being counted changed proportions. Our convictions matured as we joined nonviolent actions against fundamental inequalities for African-Americans. Like soup that is always simmering close to a boil on the stove, the law and breaking it and where legal, peaceful protest fit was a familiar discussion among friends. Our professors occasionally admonished us, saying arrests would mark our records. We felt many contradictions. In classes, we had few or no African Americans.

Tom Hayden set the standard for us in campus politics. Editor of the Michigan Daily, a four-point student, he graduated in 1961 and his dispatches from Macomb, Mississippi, where he was arrested, beaten, along with other members of SDS illuminated the struggle ahead.  It was there as black students and white students fought side by side that white students in the north began to realize that African Americans rightly would become the leaders. Occasionally we met Hayden on campus, but he was a charismatic, national figure, who inspired other student organizers to teach us about sit-ins and non-violence.

I was uncomfortable with the idea of sororities, but still trying to find a place where I might fit.  Our sorority house was filled with bright young women who were remarkably similar in their privileges and connections. Because civil rights were the central focus of activism for me, the defining moment occurred the first year I was a member. Another chapter of Delta Gamma, (at Beloit College in Wisconsin) pledged a black woman and was expelled from the national organization.  My reservations about how tacit segregation works were no longer in doubt. I deactivated from the Michigan house. 

When I was given permission to live in a university co-op, I was among people who were largely new to me. I lost many old friends.  The earnest ideology in the co-op and some chip-on-the shoulder resentment were not natural starting points. The students from the east coast were radical and drawn to social premises they hoped might overturn society. The instate students were more often there to cut costs. We did our own cooking, washed our own floors and bathrooms and I discovered Dorothy Day. That summer I took a greyhound bus to Pittsburgh, where, in a Quaker project, I lived in a church basement with university students from across America. We painted houses, taught reading and registered voters. They were weeks of community, differences, urgency.  The Quaker philosophy of listening to all sides until there was agreement often kept us looking for it until three or four in the morning. Sometimes maddening and inefficient, it was deeply agreeable to me. Young men and women, black and white all jumped into the same discussion, and opinions were strong. Agreeable too and quite the opposite, were formal Sunday Quaker meetings where in silence we listened until someone felt like breaking it with a thought.  While I was about to extend my stay, life spun me in another direction.  My father died of a sudden heart attack. 

Unexpectedly, my mother refused to pay my costs at Michigan that fall. The access we had to professors allowed dialogue. We were encouraged to express ourselves in our own terms and we were helped. I was quite prepared to dropout. In fact, my decision fit my confused mood. Professor Otto Graf, head of the Honors Program, had other ideas. He wanted me to continue my studies. He provided special funds and a job at a gift store, where people lingered, admiring objects and expressing their dissatisfactions and boredom out loud. He probably perceived the eighteen hour a week job as a transition bridge from the suburban world I was trying so hard to deny. According to Google, the last linen tablecloth and piece of china in that lovely store was sold in 2011. 

Dr. Graf solved for me a question central to middleclass white women. A narrow, frightened identity about being female and remaining a child fell away. I joined the world of women who can or must support themselves, one way or another, while pursuing other tasks. But the task of women or any person with marked differences expressing themselves still persists. The anxiety that writers feel, and certainly women, who imagined writing as their calling, has never found a solution in Virginia Woolf’s yearly stipend and a room for oneself. How to support oneself writing, while remaining independent has no answer except to admit the need, and to do it. It would take decades of women writing and telling their truths before the doors were slowly pried open by Toni Morrison, and Adrianne Rich and Wislawa Szymborska and Hillary Mantel and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And thousands of others who started to find company, ancestors, and their own voices.

In my third year, I was appointed to a special committee to work with President Harlan Hatcher and his legal advisors to examine the discriminatory clauses of all the sororities and fraternities on campus. It was a systematic look at how discrimination is perpetuated, hiding in any corner where group members claim that their identity will be imperiled should they become inclusive. The discriminatory clauses were everywhere. One by one the University required that they be removed or that the group leave campus. I remember the medieval size of the table we worked around, and the sensation that I was being asked as a student to contribute to official policy. The way we sat around the table in the President’s office and worked–not chatted–but worked together was, in its way, the height of education and a very clear definition of empowerment. I placed it in the continuum of dialogue, alongside the idealism and spirit of our endless Quaker meetings.  

Screen as a verb—to discriminate, to sort—was part of our training. We still had no experience with the object we know now as a noun in everyday life—not quite mirror, not quite touch, especially since the pandemic. With the virus and the quarantine limits, the screen has settled in as our best chance to communicate.  Our brains are learning, but our bodies, our hearts are not given enough contact through the screen to feel the warmth and subtle clues we need to feel connected. In groups scored into cubes on a screen, it’s possible to learn but difficult to penetrate to levels where communication begins to be real. Professors in my four years gave us personal attention that meant we could be honest. 

It was Professor Herbert Barrows who cornered me when I fell ill in my Senior year. When I turned in my thesis and received high honors, I had shed four courses and was three credits short of graduation. Professor Barrows and I had become friends of sorts. I’d cried in his office. Sobbed, actually, complaining about Jane Austen and her instrumentality and the lack of literature that spoke about women’s lives. He’d given me his handkerchief and the next day handed back our bluebooks. They were unmarked. He said:  I’m not sure what I think about Jane Austen. I’ve been dreadfully shaken.  On those missing three credits, he lectured me. You are the type to let it go, to say it doesn’t matter because you are going to be a writer.  But I want you to graduate and I will help you in any way possible. I did tutorials at Oxford and he shepherded my work through at Michigan. I graduated one year after my class.  

In 2020, we are looking at a period of disintegration of institutions and authority. Like land uncovered by rapidly melting mountain glaciers, inequalities and corruption are visible and deeply troubling. Frictions and contradictions are routinely manipulated into narrations of distrust. We are looking at blind refusals to reason collectively. I recently re-read Nadine Gordimer’s The Essential Gesture.  I was interested in following her changing perceptions of her role in South Africa’s struggle to rid itself of apartheid. I now appreciate the length of her commitment, the half steps, while continuously dialoguing with herself. I see how detailed her understanding of the struggle became. She openly confronts the enormous shift in her own status when the African majority takes power. She works with like-minded people, and those calibrations keep changing. She catches herself in moments of blatant contradiction, associations that momentarily disturb, but she knows ending apartheid is the only just solution. Her depth of knowledge of the movement, the players, the gradations of positions help her to accept her choice to be among those furthering justice that will rest in African hands.

Sixty years later, I end my essay citing a woman writer, whose thoughts and actions about social and racial justice were expressed in novels showing suffering and passions and costs and betrayals and change in human characters. I didn’t study Gordimer in my years at Michigan, but I was taught I could always learn, that learning was a life in itself beyond simple materialism, that change was complicated and required both a critical and passionate mind. There are seams in words and thoughts, seams in books and discoveries. I was given the tools to start learning how to join seams and take them apart, and to set out as a writer believing it was important work.  Words need to be touched once again anew: Knee, breathe, hunger.