Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study

By Branch, Robert Maribe | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study


Branch, Robert Maribe, The Journal of Negro Education


Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunities for Study, edited by Bruce Sinclair. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004. 237 pp. $35.00, hardcover.

Technology and the African-American Experience: Needs and Opportunity for Study is a valuable anthology of the automobility, otherwise known as spatial ability, demonstrated by African Americans in the United States. The purpose of Technology and the African-American Experience is to encourage exploration of the historical connections between race and technology. While scholars who study culture and community will appreciate the questions raised by the contributing authors, this book has something for all citizens of America, and is particularly important for historians, educators, civil rights activists, curators and inventors. The perspectives offered in this review are influenced by the philosophy that technology is a tool and a means to an end, rather than technology as the end itself. The themes presented in the book resonate deeply within me because I am an African American male living in the United States.

Technology and the African-American Experience suggests a need to systematically review the unique interaction of race and technology. Bruce Sinclair, formerly Melvin Kranzberg Professor of the History of Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is a Senior Fellow at the Dibner Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sinclair has served as president of the Society for the History of Technology and received its Da Vinci Medal. Sinclair has assembled a collection of essays that challenge the historical perception that Black people were technically incompetent. Sinclair has extended the conceptual framework of Hindle (1966) in Early American Technology: Needs and Opportunity for Study by calling on researchers to consider the opportunity to study the "myth of Black disingenuity." This edited book organizes the call by presenting a historical overview of race in America and technology in America. Inventions by African Americans that were salient to the development of America are shared as examples of the role Blacks played in successful technology transfer. Technology and the African-American Experience makes a case that racial identity in America was promulgated through technology and goes on to document the ways in which Blacks dispelled notions of technological inferiority and actually excelled as inventors. Technology and the African-American Experience uses historical artifacts to illustrate both visible and invisible technologies crafted by Blacks as evidence of their inventiveness since the beginning of slavery in America, and the engineering curricula that emerged as a result of institutions responding to the need to formally educate and nurture the technical capacity of African Americans. References throughout the book and a selected bibliography substantiate the claims being made and direct the reader to other relevant literature on the topics presented in the essays.

The essay, "Investigating the Histories of Race and Technology" (Brace Sinclair), helps us understand that there is a real need to study the intersection of race and technology, and more scholars should focus on the topic. We are reminded about how African Americans maintained an active record of practical inventions, but were not allowed to hold patents. Indeed, this is a history endorsed by the Society for the History of Technology. The notion that technology is as much about process as about product, is accurate and worthy of mention. However, it is Sinclair's explanation about how technology is often used as political instruments, such as photography, that really enlightens the reader and bolsters the case that we need to study race as it relates to technology.

The piece, "Landscapes of Technology Transfer: Rice Cultivation and African Communities" (Judith Carney) clearly demonstrates how Africans, and later African Americans, managed the complexity associated with the technology of West African production systems. …

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