Looking Back: 1989 BAM Inauguration celebrates black excellence

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In 1989, Oakland University kicked off the celebration of Black Awareness Month (BAM) with Jazz singer Ortheia Barnes and Free Press writer Susan Watson. Together they launched the BAM Inauguration ceremony. 

The theme was Communications and the Arts. The idea was to encourage students to reach for the best, and to highlight the contributions black men and women have given. 

“When you accept less than best,” Watson, the keynote speaker, said, “you are betraying all of those people who gave so much to get you here.” 

Watson, who received awards like the United Press International award and the Associated Press award, was the first black city editor in a major metropolitan newspaper. 

Watson felt strongly about how the media only shows one side of the black community, the failing side. She spoke about how the media leaves out “good, hard-working black folks who are making it day by day.”

Watson continued, warning all 150 students, faculty and staff present to be cautious of what they read in the media. 

“Don’t accept everything that’s said about you,” she said.

Furthering that point, she told students to express their emotions about what they see in the news and media. She told students to speak out to the media. If they aren’t happy with something in the news, then they need to say something. 

“Express your feelings. Don’t be afraid of challenge,” she said. “It’s worth fighting for.”

Watson brought some rhetoric into her speech, discussing how she’s tired of hearing about black leaders, then asked, “When’s the last time you heard about a white leader?”

She continued, asking the audience for names of black leaders. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and Reverend Jesse Jackson were two of the several named.

Then she asked the audience to name some white leaders, to which the audience remained in silence. 

“Don’t know? George Bush, maybe? she suggested. “But is he called a white leader?”

To finish her speech, she encouraged students to keep up their grades. Moreover, to hold off on partying until their school work is done. 

Following Watson’s speech, Barnes performed her own song, “The Winner In You.” 

Barnes has been performing regularly at night clubs in Detroit for over a decade and hosts her own radio and cable shows. 

She has performed for a variety of people and at many places. She has performed for dignitaries like Pope John Paul II and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. 

The ceremony wasn’t just for the students, faculty and staff as Watson, Barnes and four others received the 1989 Focus and Impact Award. This award is only given to outstanding men and women role models.  

The other four include Robert Fink, an OU counseling director; Earl Klugh, a guitarist from Detroit; Carl Owens, a Detroit artist; and Robert Donald, an OU associate professor in English. Donald had died the previous December. 

Both Watson and Barnes received a $300 honorarium for their roles in the ceremony. Watson donated all $300 to OU’s financial aid fund for books and supplies. 

Today, African American Celebration Month is still popular among campus. The Center of Multicultural Initiatives (CMI) hosts an opening ceremony in the Oakland Center. From Jan. 20 through Feb. 20, dozens of events are held, all hosted by different groups on campus. 

More information can be found on CMI’s website.