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Black and white logic:
It's a prison for those who heed it

Guest Column/James H. Williams, Jr.

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss-shay,

That was built in such a logical way

It ran a hundred years to a day, ...?

Oliver Wendell Holmes->

(In the affairs of humankind) I don't believe in logic, just results!

Anyone with Common Sense->

The Feb. 12 editorial "McBay must resign in students' interest" makes me sad.

My sadness is complex; very complex. I don't fully understand it.

I'm trying simultaneously to prepare a lecture and to write a gracious letter declining a deanship of engineering, but I keep thinking about the low morale among my black faculty and administrative colleagues.

In my 15 years at MIT on the faculty -- more than 20 if I include my student years -- it's never been lower. We used to talk about educating our students (black, brown, yellow and white), about our aspirations (locally, nationally and internationally), and about making MIT a better home for ourselves and our progeny.

But now, all conversations gravitate toward the master's paper trails to substantiate our malfeasance, resignations (senior as well as junior members) and jobs elsewhere. The DuBois dilemma has never been in more painful focus.

It's just 9 am, so I have two hours to prepare the lecture; I have to live up to my reputation (it's interesting how honors and acknowledgments beget hard work and loyalty).

It's all laid out, reason followed by logical reason; just like a declaration of independence (the same way George III got it!); from the Oct. 1979 transgressions of Mr. Simonides and Dr. Gray to the Aug. 1984 pornographic row. Yes, it's all right there in black and white logic.

My eyes are focused on a tree in Killian Court, but my mind is in the southern 1950's. They had their logic, too (and we had our cushions).

Boy, you can't sit in the front of the bus because ... well, it's against the law. (Don't worry, if the bus hits a 'lectric pole, you know who gonna die first.) Boy, you can't use the restroom because ... well, it's against the law. (Don't worry, I'll ask Miss Sarah to pee in his food next week. Or, don't worry, we've got God's sky as the roof to our toilet.)

Boy, you can't look at that white woman because ... well, reckless eyeballing is against the law. (Don't worry, the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. Of course, if that doesn't cool you off, maybe Emmett Till can get your attention.) And the beat goes on.

Even way back then, their logic confounded me. After all, didn't my grandmama breast-feed that bus driver? Didn't she fix their food? And, I certainly thought it was Thomas Jefferson (yes, the TJ) who fornicated with Aunt Jemima. And the beat goes on.

I wonder how many of my black forefathers were forced to stand by and literally watch the master send their black sisters, weeping, crying and screaming, to the graves of unwed princesses. From deep within the bowels of my primordial brain, the mushrooming thought "leave Shirley alone" shatters my consciousness.

I have not talked with Dean McBay for more than two years. We see most issues differently. Nevertheless, I don't want to see her leave MIT.

I believe she is as competent as anyone who has held that position during my time here. I believe she can be favorably compared with the typical MIT career mid-level administrator. I believe she's honest. I believe she has integrity. I believe she works hard.

But most of all, I believe she's an individual; no homogenized milquetoast automaton; no Orwellian Winston is this lady.

Other than being born black and female during the southern 1930's (it's ironical that most of us are southerners), perhaps her major shortcoming is that she didn't read Paul Laurence Dunbar:

Folks ain't got no right to censuah

otha folks about deh habits;

Him dat giv' de squir'ls de bushtails

made de bobtails fu' de rabbits.

I disagree with many of her actions and policies, but I want her to stay. I wonder whether the students surmise that she may stick in the craw of the master even more than in their own.

It's 9:57 am, and MIT, indeed this society, is moving inexorably toward technological segregation. Our black sisters, brothers and children are technically ignorant. Yet black (science and engineering, in particular) faculty and administrators are dropping like flies.

There is a logical reason why each has left or is about to leave. There is also a logical reason why each won't be replaced by a brother or sister.

The logic is there -- we are all its prisoner -- but the result is stunningly painful; our thin ranks are both aging and thinning. (Even Dean McBay, in firing Ms. Mary O. Hope, is guilty of being duped by their logic). Intimidated by the might of the master, we have turned on ourselves, fought ourselves, killed ourselves.

It's logical, so say the psychologists.

So many of my brothers and sisters are angry. Some of us are angry at the logic of the government that would allow millions of people to go malnourished in the breadbasket of the world.

Some of us are angry that the master's sons are allowed to be eccentric while we are never more than crazy; they're assertive, we're aggressive; they're bold, we're brazen; they're proud, we're arrogant; even they're "team players," we're "yes men."

Some of us are angry that we spend 12- to 15-hour days in the masters' institutions in order to "make it," while our own institutions atrophy and decay. Some of us are angry at the immense time-warping analogies between the periods 1865-1885 and 1965-1985.

Some of us are angry that most of us will die with our songs still in us. Some of us are angry that the master chooses from among us the heroes for our children while our real heroes wither in quiet despair.

Some of us are angry that we are unable even to imagine generation after generation after generation after ... of bondage. Some of us are angry at ourselves for not dying in the gun battles of Watts, Hough, 12th Street in Detroit ... .

I'm angry at the potential repercussions of writing this column, onto the master's hit list (What would H. Rap Brown or Malcolm have done? Write on!).

But why are so many of us angry at young blacks? Some say it's because they think they got here exclusively on their individual merits; that no one literally died so that they might ride on the Flagship; that they are not connected with the past.

But I say they're pursuing the same dollar as my generation. That's it; it's their absence of guilt. We had the faith and lost it. (We were taught that you had to work very hard; that you had to be better to be equal; that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem).

Having never had the faith, they can't feel guilty for losing it. My guilt quickly subsides, but the relief is only temporary; this guilt is chronic.

I wonder why Dean McBay and the students don't start over and talk it all out. That's logical. Perhaps logic will work again, the way it used to in the South.

10:45 am brings on one giant cold sweat. That lecture is drawing frightfully near, but it's mostly the bad pork I ate in Oct. '59 on my way to Greensboro to see N.C.A.&T. get run over by Bob Hayes and FLAM. (To this day that meat haunts me, occasionally ringing my gall bladder at 2 am).

After making us go outside around to the back of the building to be handed a fried pork chop that was bad, the man explained that it was the law. Okay, that's logical. (If only I had known that the sit-ins were only four months away ...).

The indigestion is cramping; worse than the time the giant yo-yo didn't work. Next time, I don't care who laughs at me, I'm going to pick up a box of fried chicken before I hit the road.

Neither my sadness nor my understanding has been altered during the past two hours, but we're 120 minutes closer to the neo-1950's.

It's complex.

I hope she stays.

It's 10:59 am. Oh well, let's wing one for the Gripper.

(Editor's note: James H. Williams, Jr. '67 is a professor of mechanical engineering.)