Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

The Nurturance of African American Scientific Talent

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

The Nurturance of African American Scientific Talent

Article excerpt

Recent data suggest that international students from China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan, who are studying at colleges and universities in the United States, graduate as engineers and scientists in higher rates than native-born American students. (1) Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on the findings of two National Science Foundation reports that found a corresponding decline in the number of Americans entering science and technical fields. (2) On average, U.S. students score lower on standardized tests in mathematics and science than their counterparts from these countries. According to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), U.S. eighth graders performed at an average level in relation to their international counterparts, but American twelfth graders performed below the international average. (3) It is clear that elementary and secondary education needs to improve in the United States, for without continuous and large-scale nurturance of scientific talent and intellective competencies for all students, including those who are consistently underrepresented and underserved, we will not maintain high degrees of scientific competitiveness and productivity.

Throughout its history, the myriad infrastructures and systems in the United States have conspired to negate the scientific contributions of U.S. African Americans and undermine their status as equal citizens. As an intrinsic part of this phenomenon, African American inventors who were enslaved had the added complication of being denied meaningful recognition for their significant contributions to society.

Historically, the treatment of African Americans by the dominant white majority was based on the Eurocentric perspective that Africans were intellectually and culturally inferior as a group. The underdevelopment and neglect of African American intellective and creative talent can be traced to the long experience of enslavement, the racist values that were constructed to justify it, and the accommodationist political stances taken by some leaders in the African American community. Nevertheless, people of color, especially persons of African descent, were well represented among fledgling scientific and technological contributors to the developing nation. (4) African Americans were less well represented among cultural and literary workers, but even so, some distinguished themselves (we continue to discover evidence of literary productivity during the years of enslavement). African American inventors and craftsmen in the 18th century were involved in skilled work, ranging from painting, silver and goldsmithing, to the construction of houses. The origins of African American participation in the craft and inventive traditions may be traced from the nameless black craftsmen who helped to produce the tools and machines required for life in colonial America, to those better-known inventors of the late 19th century. It is perhaps this involvement in doing the actual work that accounts for the heavy representation of African American people among America's early inventors. Lisa Jardine has noted the association between creative contributions to science and technology and the involvement of the inventors in the activity of the work. It seems that doing the work, and thinking about the problems that the work entails, generate new knowledge and technique. (5)

Before and during the Civil War, most of the agricultural and mining industries of the South were carried out with enslaved labor. Available information from this period suggests that many of the tools developed were designed by enslaved people to lessen the burden of their daily work. These inventions were not patented by the United States patent office because Jeremiah S. Black, U.S. Attorney General at the time, ruled in 1858 that since a patent was a contract between the government and the inventor, an enslaved person could not make a contract with the government nor assign his or her invention to his master since a slave was not considered a U. …

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