"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.

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This is really interesting! It's hard not to see similar narratives emerging with the development of new technologies even today. This seems like a really valuable book, and a valuable discussion to have in science and technology.


Posting this wonderful information on HBCU- for young people to read, and digest from another point of view.

Thank you

M. Fernandez
Fmr.Adj.Prof. Cultural Anthropology

Reminds me of the excellent, though probably slightly more factual,"Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail," Harvard University Press, 1997, which also describes the experience and subsequent dissapearance of black men (free and slave) from a technical field. For an interview with the author http://seacoastnh.com/blackhistory/jacks.html


I wish there was more meat to this; I'm skeptical. It sounds an awful lot like redefining "technological achievement" so that African Americans can be found to have made a larger impact than previously thought.

That's a questionable road to go down, if this is truly the premise.

You summarize the author as saying,

"...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."

I find that to be a weird thing to say. Our culture values invention and understanding of technology over simple use. Personally, I don't see that as a bad thing.

Sigh. Stuart, have you READ anything in either of the books I discuss here? You can read both introductory essays on the web if you click on the links above. Read them and try to think a little before you get all huffy and defensive of the status quo. And what, exactly, are you defending? How can you possibly be skeptical if you don't even know what you are talking about?

If you would trouble yourself for an instant to actually do some reading, and follow it up with some thinking - if you would even bother to try thinking hard about even the statement you quoted - that would be good. For example, you would learn that the authors are not suggesting devaluing or throwing out design as a subject for study and investigation.

You say "our culture values design and understanding of technology over simple use." There are a couple of things to complicate that statement. Creation of design is but one aspect of it. "Understanding of technology" does, indeed, fall under the purview that the authors of these books are talking about. "Use", on the other hand, is not just simple. Conventional historical mythologizing would like you to believe it is so - that's one way the narrative of technology as white and masculine keeps being rewritten - but it is not true.

Taking a look at something other than just the creation of design does not negate design but it does give us a broader and more complete look at technology's history. It is fascinating that doing so can be so threatening.


Thanks for the reply.

First, you accuse me of "[getting] all huffy and defensive", and wanting to support the status quo and not knowing what I'm "talking about". This is an ad hominem attack --- a logical fallacy --- so right off the bat you sacrifice your own credibility. I would be more careful about this in the future.

In fact, if you read my comment, you'll see that I carefully restricted to my conclusions the inferences I could draw from reading your own post. E.g., "if this is truly the premise", "You summarize the author as saying...".

Finally, you don't directly address the main points I raised, preferring instead to end your comment with a final ad hominem. In summary, your response does nothing to advance your point of view or position.

you're right. You're not dead yet...and neither am I. This is a great post. I'll add it to the carnival. And don't forget to submit to the March Women's History month carnival.

While the historical aspects are a very intriguing read, the conclusion is driven by political desire, not provable facts. We know that well educated African Americans are as capable as the next (white) guy, and that they were denied that education on racial grounds for centuries. From their the articles seem to conclude that despite that handicap they contributed to the "Yankee ingenuity" behind the scenes but were denied recognition, and I don't see the (accessible) material show that. Somehow we're replacing one set of historical mythologizing, to use Zuska's expression, with a new one because it should have could have been that way, not because we can demonstrate such.

This whole conversation reminds me of when I read about the invention of cotton swabs (q tips). It said something like "cotton swabs were invented by ____(some dude), when he saw his wife wrapping cotton around tooth picks in order to clean her children's ears." I thought a good revision would be "cotton swabs were invented when some dude saw his wife inventing cotton swabs".

Very insightful, the reading offers challenge to the way we are so accustomed to read History from the side of the Victors, the white slave master (in the case of the USA)or the colonial superintendent (in case of Africa)Its high time that people of African descent reject the traditional historian's tendency to read straightforward narratives of progress in the historical record! Perhaps we can learn lessons from Foucault who a argued that we argues that one should seek to reconstitute not large "periods" or "centuries" but "phenomena of rupture, of discontinuity" . The problem, he argues, "is no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits". Instead of presenting a monolithic version of a given period, Foucault argues that we must reveal how any given period reveals "several pasts, several forms of connexion, several hierarchies of importance, several networks of determination, several teleologies, for one and the same science, as its present undergoes change: thus historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge, they increase with every transformation and never cease, in turn, to break with themselves" Foucault adopts the term "archaeology" to designate his historical method and he articulates what he means by that term by specifying how his method differs from both traditional his story and the traditional history of ideas. Itâs the adoption of such a method (somewhat similar to what Zuska has done here) that will helps us explore and rekindle meaning from the History of exclusion!

By Dr. Samuel Kaw… (not verified) on 08 Jun 2010 #permalink