Sinclair, Bruce. Technology and the African-American Experience:  Needs and Opportunities for Study. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

Introduction:  Integrating the Histories of Race and Technology

List format today in the interest of brevity.

  1. Perceptions about inventiveness and natural aptitude have played a huge role in pushing the A.A. technological experience to the borders of accepted thought.  This is why A.A. are largely absent from the technological conversation.  In keeping with this theme, the work of slavery (brute force) was tied to mental capacity; hence, whites were able to tell themselves it was OK to continue slavery because A.A.’s were incapable of learning/thinking anyway.
  2. White identity has long been tied to technological capability.  This is inherent not only in the Yankee ingenuity, but also in concepts of manifest destiny.  Because of the success of the democratic project in the US, whites conceived of technological aptitude and progress as a natural element of their masculinity (which means that technology was also gendered in addition to being raced).
  3. “All down these long decade, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans made technology and the capacity for its skillful management central both to the task of nation-building and to the way they represented themselves.  Just as plainly, they contrasted themselves to people of color, whom they judged incapable of such things” (5).
  4. Sinclair has a list of things he thinks historians and scholars should concentrate on to improve the historical explication of the intersection of race and technology.  These include:
    1. Search out all black inventors
    2. Look at the world of labor
    3. Look at the world of consumption – in other words, how have Black consumption practices played a role in the development of new technologies?
    4. How is race represented in the media?  How is it represented in different kinds of technological media?
    5. A study of black scientific and technical institutions
    6. A more complex exploration of A.A. participation in technical and industrial expositions.
    7. The author notes that deciding what to write about when reclaiming A.A. experience with technology “rests on what we imagine it is possible to write about” (13).
    8. The author makes a great point that technological advances are created out of choices, not abstract neutral technological logic or neutral process; hence, the social process that informed those choice embody the interests, positions, and attitudes of the ones that created them.  SO, the takeaway is that technology is NOT neutral.

Chapter One:  Landscapes of Technology Transfer:  Rice Cultivation and African Continuities

Judith Carney

In this article, Carney advances the argument that West African slaves were the real reason why much rice cultivation shifted from inland river based rice cultivation to eventual tidal cultivation.  Though historians have long contended that this was because of Dutch influence, the likely reality was that Africans and Europeans (in unequal power relations with one another) combined their knowledges to further develop the rice cultivation along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts.  In reclaiming this history, Carney contends that Eurocentric views have contributed to the glossing over of Africans contribution to this agrarian economy.

Chapter Two:  “To Collect Proof of Colored Talent and Ingenuity”:  African-American Invention and Innovation

Portia James

In this chapter James presents a catalogue of A.A. technological innovations from the period between 1619-1930.  Here are some highlights:

  1. In the early colonial period, A.A., white wage workers and slave owners tended to work together to come up with technological innovations to common problems; however, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, as the black-white line became more pronounced, this cooperation ended abruptly.
  2. Until the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments, it was virtually impossible for slaves or A.A. freedmen to apply for and receive a patent.  Though the patent office was in New York, and hence, the Union, blacks were rarely granted patents.
  3. Before heavy industrialization in the late 19th century, much A.A. technological innovation was concentrated in skilled knowledge of everyday processes (butter churns, etc.) and agrarian technologies.
  4. Before said industrialization, Blacks were:
    1. Interested in improving their lot through technology just like whites
    2. Those A.A.’s who were particularly skilled for invention tended to gravitate to urban areas and where, hence, well situated for the technological advances of the late 19th century industrial re-revolution.
    3. The railroad was the most powerful and significant developing technology for Black inventors.
    4. A.A.’s saw technological development and invention as a means to gain access to participation and inclusion in the Great America of the pre WWI period.
    5. A.A. during the early 20th century had to develop marketing and manufacturing savvy to become industrialists instead of just inventors.
    6. Besides racial prejudice, $ was the chief limiters for A.A. inventors to gain access to manufacture.
    7. The two most important take aways from the study are:
      1. A.A. men and women have been active participants in the history of American technology from the very beginning (66).
      2. A.A. stories disrupt the lie that A.A.’s were naturally mentally inferior human beings.

Chapter Four:  New South, New North:  Region, Ideology, and Access in Industrial Education

Nina Lerman

This chapter explored the differences between “Industrial Education” models in the South and North during the Reconstruction period.  According to the author, her article,
“suggests that the paradoxes of industrial education spring from – and must be explained in terms of – contradictions between the various perceived potentials of the A.A. labor force in New South industrial development; the tradition of large-scale production through hand cultivation in Southern agriculture; the steady technological marginalization of the A.A. community in the urban North; and Northern Philanthropy’s funding of educational programs in ongoing conversation with Southern leaders” (80).

So, let’s break this apart:

  1. New South industrial development – Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute presented themselves as a place for A.A. men to get a Christian education while learning some skills of industrial trades.  In fact, Tuskegee was THE Southern industrial training facility during the Reconstruction period.  What is odd about this is that Washington used Northern Philanthropic $ to train these A.A. men.  Presumably, Northern industrialists wanted to eventually use the South as an industrial home without the union presence of the North.  In training for industry, Washington was teaching his students to be obedient to the whim of industry. .. .. and NOT get involved in labor.
  2. Northern trade schools – such as ICY – started out in the industrial model; however, after matriarchs and other influential community organizers died out or left the education scene in Northern cities, schools such as ICY usually changed their mission from one of industrial trade’s education to Christian moral-influenced teaching schools.  In fact, ICY – citing Tuskegee as an example – created an out of the city campus for its students.  They then trained their students to be teachers that would eventually work in the South educating in trades and domestic duties.

This seems to be the contradiction that the author points out at the beginning of her article.  The takeaway here is that “Industrial Education” as the counterpart to “Black Colleges” cannot be conceived of in a national sense; rather, they must be taken on their own, local terms to understand exactly what motivations/desires were at work.

Chapter Six:  Raising Fish with a Song:  Technology, Chanteys, and African Americans in the Atlantic Menhaden Fishery

Barbara Garrity-Blake

Blake analyzes the expressive practices of A.A. Menhaden fisherman in this piece.  Essentially, she contends that A.A.’s used singing as a technological device for a couple of reasons:

  1. The work song as technology not only functioned as a tool to get the job done, it signified:  the words expressed resistance to white authority, freedom to seek new wage-labor employment, and the desire to be home with loved ones (114).
  2. The author characterizes this as a “invisible technology”

Chapter Eight:  “The Open Road”:  Automobility and Racial Uplift in the Interwar Years

Kathleen Franz

This article investigates the use of the automobile by Black American’s in the period between the end of WWI and the end of WWII.  Some points of interest:

  1. This essay investigates the automobile as an instrument of cultural power that offered black middle-class drivers access to both personal mobility and technological expertise. (132)
  2. Cultural histories of technology that focus on material culture, users, and consumption suggest two ways to expand the scope of A.A. history
    1. Because consumption is a highly political form of technological use, studies of consumption can reveal a lot about the condition of a group.
    2. Studies of how the black community appropriated technological artifacts can highlight the importance of technological skill and knowledge within larger arguments about racial progress – in this case, the historian will use the A.A. experience with automobility to demonstrate how A.A. found their ways into discourses of economic prosperity, leisured mobility, and technological know-how. (132-3)
    3. Discourses of economic prosperity
      1. i.      A.A. used the automobile to take part in the growing middle class identity in the US in the postwar years.
      2. Leisured moibility – to participate in the middle-class ideal, A.A. used the automobile to gain access to the “Open Road” – even though the road wasn’t so open at all.
      3. Technological knowhow – A.A.’s used the automobile to challenge the discourses surrounding Black mental inferiority.

Chapter Nine:  The Matter of Race in Histories of American Technology

Rebecca Herzig

Herzig makes the argument that race, much like gender, is tied to technological development.  After demonstrating the gendered nature of the Ford Probe at the beginning of the article, Herzig notes that technology does a couple of things:

  1. Narratives of technology provide a means by which individuals establish separate alternative racial identities.
  2. Technologies also offer a key to resolving character’s “true” racial identity in moments of crisis.
  3. Social constructions of race often ignore the materiality of race.
  4. Thinking of race and technology and their relationships to one another provides better history and allow us to ask new questions about the past.
  5. Thinking about the relations between race and technology grounds discussions about both in the realm of politics, not historiography.

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