Distinguished professors, fellow doctoral candidates, family, friends, and loved ones, I was asked by the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to address this convocation today on behalf of all graduates.
When I was first asked to speak, it occurred to me that I have nothing to say. You and I could chat about our research, but I wouldn’t understand the contents of your dissertation any more than you would understand the contents of mine. I could expound upon the role of high level academia in modern society, but you could get that at any convocation, or commencement.
My inspiration for today’s address actually came from a mountain top. Five hours ago I arrived in New York City from an excursion to the Andes Mountains in Chile, where I lived nocturnally for seven days. The trip’s purpose was to obtain data on the structure of the Galaxy from a location 7,000 feet above sea level at the telescopes of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, 50 kilometers from the nearest town. It is there that I obtained my thesis data over the past two years. And it is there that I reflected on my life’s path through time and space.
Today, I wish to offer you a personal account of the Ph.D.; one that highlights events of my past that we are not likely to have in common.
When I was in elementary school in the public schools of New York City, I distinctly remember that it was important to me to be athletic—in particular, to be able to run fast. My efforts were encouraged by all around me. My reward was the respect and admiration of classmates and streetmates.
In junior high school it was important to me, now that I was certified the “fastest on the block,” to slam-dunk a basketball. This is a two-faceted achievement; you have to jump high and palm the basketball. On April 17, 1973 I was the first in my grade to slam-dunk a basketball. I then asked myself,
Is this all there is to it? The answer is basically yes, yet one can imagine creative variations such as a 360-degree pirouette in mid-air preceding the dunk, but you still only score two points.
About the same time I learned that light, traveling at 186,282 miles per second, moves too slowly to escape from the event horizon of a black hole. This was more astonishing to me than a 360-degree slam-dunk. I soon became scientifically curious and read everything I could find about the Universe. I began to see myself as a future scientist—in particular, an astrophysicist. It became a deeply seeded dream.
Then, and only then, did I come to the shattering awareness that there were few parts of society that were prepared to accept my dreams. I wanted to do with my life what people of my skin color were not supposed to do. As an athlete, I did not violate society’s expectations since there was adequate precedent for dark-skinned competitors in the Olympics and in professional sports. To be an astrophysicist, however, became a “path of most resistance.” I began to wonder whether I originally wanted to be an athlete more from society’s interest rather than my own.
In high school, nobody asked further about how I became captain of the wrestling team. But when I became editor-in-chief of my school’s annual Physical Science Journal, my qualifications were constantly queried. And when I was accepted to the college of my choice, I was continually asked for my SAT scores and grade point average. Indeed, one fellow student threatened to break into the school records to read my scores if I didn’t tell.
When I first entered graduate school, (in an institution far from Columbia), I was eager to pursue my dreams of research astrophysics. But the first comment directed to me in the first minute of the first day by a faculty member who I had just met was,
You must join our department basketball team. As the months and years passed, faculty and fellow students would suggest alternative careers for me thinking that they were doing me a favor,
Why don’t you become a computer salesman?
Why don’t you teach at a community college?
Why don’t you leave astrophysics and academia? You can make much money in industry.
At no time was I perceived as a future colleague, though this privilege was enjoyed by other graduate students. When combined with the dozens of times I have been stopped and questioned by the police for going to and from my office after hours, and the hundreds of times I am followed by security guards in department stores, and the countless times people cross the street upon seeing me approach them on the sidewalk, I can summarize my life’s path by noting that in the perception of society
- my athletic talents are genetic,
- I am a likely mugger-rapist,
- my academic failures are expected, and
- my academic successes are attributed to others.
Ladies and Gentlemen, to spend most of my life fighting these attitudes levies an emotional tax that is a form of intellectual emasculation. It is a tax that I would not wish upon my enemies. As of this afternoon, my Ph.D. will bring the national total of Black Astrophysicists from 6 to 7 (out of 4,000 nationwide). Given what I experienced, I am surprised there are that many.
I eventually learned that you can only be ridden if your back is bent. And, of course, that which doesn’t kill you can make you stronger. Three years ago I transferred my graduate program to Columbia University when I was welcomed by the Department of Astronomy.
In the past two and a half years I
- received a twice-renewed NASA research fellowship
- published 4 research papers
- attended 4 international conferences (one in Switzerland, two in Italy, and one in Chile)
- had two popular-level books published: one in contract, and one released in 1989 that now enjoys a distribution in Japan with a Japanese translation
- was quoted in the New York Times three times
- appeared twice on network television, and
- was appointed to a well-respected post-doctoral research position at Princeton University’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences beginning this fall.
I share all this with you only to note that it is remarkable what can be accomplished when you are surrounded by people who believe in you; people whose expectations are not set by the short-sighted attitudes of society—people who help to open doors of opportunity, not close them.
Thanks to Columbia’s interest in me, the love and support of my family, and the endorsement of the Department of Astronomy, I have truly lived and fulfilled a dream, yet I know my life has just begun.