“The Myth of Black Disingenuity”: Exploring the Intersection of African American History and the History of Technology
I failed to produce this post in time for DNLee’s Diversity in Science carnival – Black History Month: Broadening STEM Participation at Every Level. That’s mostly because I had a bunch of personal stuff going on in the past couple weeks that just wouldn’t leave me alone. I think I’ll be back to more regular blogging now.
You might have already read my brief post on Hercules, the chef enslaved by George Washington who eventually escaped to freedom. In it I noted “It was no small thing to be a chef under such circumstances, and the degree of technical skill required was surely astonishing.” Even the highest tech 18th century kitchen still demanded a range and depth of technical competence that today’s average pampered cook just can’t imagine.
When I read about Hercules in that fantastic set of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, I might not have given much thought to the degree of technical skill he must have possessed to turn out state dinners in such circumstances. What put me in the state of mind to ponder such matters was a book I had recently begun browsing: A Hammer in Their Hands: A Documentary History of Technology and the African-American Experience, ed. Carroll Pursell. This book would be worth its price if only for the introductory essay which contextualizes the collection of primary sources that follows with the intersection of African-American history and the history of technology, all in a few short pages. Pursell speaks of the “prehistories” of these fields, and notes the following:
…in the words of one women’s historian, they tended to be recuperative, liberal, and individualist. They were recuperative in the sense that they attempted to discover and bring to the front people and episodes that had been long hidden behind the American metanarrative of progress through the political efforts of white men. They were liberal in that they tended to buy into that predominant notion of inevitable progress, and wanted only for it to apply also to their subjects. And individualistic because they celebrated the personal achievements of those persons who had met and overcome challenges and roadblocks to success.
Gradually, however, both fields have become more complex, more theoretical, more radical in the sense of looking at the social and cultural patterns that shape experiences and the meanings we take from them. Both technology and race are now understood to be socially constructed, not fixed categories but ones that are always contested and historically contingent.
In particular, Pursell notes, the privileging of design in histories of technology constructs the field in a manner that leads inevitably to the absence of African-Americans from those studies. And yet, as he says, “design is hardly the whole of technology”. Who makes them? is only one question we can ask about technologies and tools. “…[H]ow do they work, what do they do, who owns, operates, maintains, repairs them, and what do they mean?” are others. But Europeans have tended to value more technologies and tools that most closely approximate their own, and historians have tended to pay attention more to technologies and tools that change over time and/or that are in the public sphere. You can guess what that has meant for those “not white enough and not sufficiently manly” as Pursell puts it .
Competence with tools is one mark of a man. Pursell considers the phrase “Yankee ingenuity”. If this masculine ideal writ large on the American consciousness is to make sense, then whatever women do, whatever is associated with people of color, needs to be redefined as not-really-technology. Thus the kitchen, where you will find women, is not a technological site. And if an enslaved black man is using some of the same tools that white men are, then up will spring myths about incompetent slaves breaking their hoes in the fields.
The reality is that George Washington was greatly vexed at the loss of a highly skilled laborer whose services he’d had the use of at no cost. He spent a great deal of time and energy trying to locate Hercules after he escaped, in order to return him to his enslavement. In this he was not alone. A Hammer in Their Hands presents a number of runaway slave advertisements from the Virginia Gazette, and a compliation profile of runaway slaves from 1730 to 1787 in Virginia and South Carolina. The runaway slave advertisements show that the craft skills of the slave were almost always included as part of the description – as part of the identity of the slaves. The compilation table lists a range of craft skills including carpenters, sawyers, coopers, blacksmiths, waterman, shoemaker, planter, ferryman, doctor, ironwork, etc.
A Hammer in Their Hands is the companion volume to Technology and the African American Experience, and the fine introductory essay of the latter explores what author Bruce Sinclair calls “the myth of black disingenuity”. To deconstruct this myth, it is not sufficient to go back and reclaim black heroes of the past, says Sinclair. We must look at how white Americans have constructed the “Yankee ingenuity” myth whereby technological expertise is intimately intertwined with American democratic ideals, masculine identity, and whiteness. Sinclair argues for turning our usual approach upside down. The history of invention is always an exciting story to tell, and reclaiming black inventors is a worthy project. But given that for so long it was illegal for blacks to own patents, that their creative work was stolen from them, that the process of patenting itself required an access to the legal system and capitol that most poor people and people of color just didn’t have – it behooves us to look at the worlds of consumption and labor as well as the world of invention.
… if we intend a truly inclusive history… then we have to take into account all those people whose most crucial encounter with machines and technological systems takes place on the job. And surely it is the case that, in the normal, daily working of the world, skill and experience count for as much as abstract knowledge and formal training. What makes this fact important to us is that by defining technical knowledge and creativity in broad terms we immediately reveal hosts of African-Americans who had previously been excluded from the story. We find them planning the layout of South Carolina rice fields, creating pottery, fashioning the furniture now highly prized by collectors, using sewing machines, running and fixing cotton gins, molding iron in Henry Ford’s assembly-line factories, and fishing in the ocean for schools of menhaden.
There is so much more in these two volumes than ever I could begin to touch on in one puny blog post. They are the kind of books you don’t have to read in a linear fashion – you could dip into them here and there, go back to them again and again, make connections with other things you are reading. Anyone working in history of technology ought to own them, anyone interested in the topic ought to read them, and anyone teaching engineering students in the U.S. ought to make them aware of these books, in my opinion.
Encountering these books has started me thinking in a different way about technology. I am quite used to looking through the gender lens, but now I see that I have really been missing a great big huge piece of things, And I cannot believe it. If I could describe the way my (non)thinking about race and technology went before, it might have been something like “well, people of color have been shut out of technology since forever, so there isn’t really a whole lot to say about it. Except that of course we need to get more people of color into technology fields.” Perhaps I might also have noted something about how ancient peoples were very good at astronomy and geometry, or some such blah blah. Well, one can always hope to do better in the future. I am not dead yet.