It may have been that Christmas when the chemistry set was more of a hit than the doll and dollhouse that Mr. and Mrs. Swann got the first inkling. Or the glowing reports coming home from the junior high chemistry teacher about their daughter Madeline. But they knew definitely when she asked to have pet mice for some experiments. Science was Madeline’s calling, and she pursued it with a purpose. In 1980, Madeline graduated from Howard University having earned a Ph.D. in chemistry.
She thought she would work on the eradication of diseases, but was drawn to research on the properties of fuels. Working for thirty years as a civilian employee of the U.S. Department of the Army, they lauded her work on keeping fuels liquid in harsh, cold climates. Those testimonies to her intelligence and skill in her technical field were diminished by the number of times—in meetings and conferences—she was taken to be ‘the help,’ clerical support, and asked to fetch coffee and sandwiches for the generals in the meetings who were doing the ‘real’ work. Once she made the offenders recognize their error, apologies were made, and the meeting continued with Madeline playing her true role. But Madeline’s lingering feeling was that no one in those rooms—full of white men—even considered the possibility she could be the chemist on whose research their military plans were being developed. Madeline died a little over a year ago. If she were alive today, she would be the last person in our group to be surprised by the recent event on a Delta Airlines plane.
Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an African-American physician, offered her help to a passenger having a medical emergency. Three Delta employees questioned Dr. Stanford’s credentials even after she produced her medical license. A practice that was not to be followed after a 2016 incident when another Delta employee questioned the credentials of another black physician, Dr. Tamika Cross, when she tried to help a Delta passenger.
While Dr. Madeline Swann’s experiences and Dr. Stanford’s just a few days ago are decades apart, the realities are the same. Some things change, others remain. It is hard for some white people to believe black people have professional credentials. Some suggest that America is more racially fair now than ever before. I suspect that is true. There is a far greater likelihood you will encounter an African-American Ph.D. or M.D. today than at any other time in our country’s history, but even so only about 6% of all physicians today are African-American, and similarly, only about 6.5% of all doctoral candidates are African-American. Some might suggest that these low numbers—the low probability — underscore why Madeline wasn’t thought to be the chemist and why Dr. Stanford was questioned about being a medical doctor. I don’t believe that.
Even when presented with tangible evidence—a medical license—Dr. Stanford was not believed. Whether in the 1980s or thirty years later, the default presumption is a black woman couldn’t possibly be a physician… or a scientist. The narratives about black people’s ambition, intelligence and capabilities are still rampant as are other biases—of which some might even be unaware—against African-Americans.
In the 1990s, when my friend, Dr. Renee Fleming Mills styled her hair in braids and put them in what she thought was an elegant and professional chignon, she was told that hairstyle jeopardized her career path in corporate America. Her hair, not her Ph.D., evidence of her knowledge and expertise, became an issue. She wasn’t conforming to an American, white community-based, physical standard.
Just a few years ago, I heard a colleague, a black woman, say she had earned a Ph.D. not because she wanted to be an academic, but so the white community would not question her knowledge. I wonder if that has afforded her the social and community elevation and respect she expected.
We—my friends and I—were raised to be daughters of the dream; a dream in which success would be possible due to the content of our character (and the credentials we earned), not limited or prohibited by the color of our skin. Today, 55 years after Martin Luther King’s memorable address, skin color still invokes certain beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices. It is the ‘credential’ some see long before you can pull out your medical license or run home to get that diploma.