Reading about Technology and Innovation for Black History Month

Inspired by the African American Read-In, a short list of books that focus on the history of technology and innovation in all its richness and complexity.

During the month of February, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), in partnership with its Black Caucus, is inviting the public to join over a million readers as part of the Twenty-Seventh National African American Read-In.

Throughout the month, schools, churches, libraries, bookstores, community and professional organizations, and interested citizens are urged to make literacy a significant part of Black History Month by hosting and coordinating Read-Ins in their communities. According to the event guidelines, hosting a Read-In can be as simple as bringing together friends to share a book, or as elaborate as arranging public readings and media presentations that feature professional African American writers.

You can learn more about how to start a Read-In at http://www.ncte.org/aari. Also check out examples of how others have done Read-Ins. NCTE also offers an African American Read-In Toolkit that includes suggested books for all ages, complimentary bookmarks, recent articles, and more.

Inspired by the African American Read-In, SB&F has compiled a short list of books that focus on the history of technology and innovation in all its richness and complexity.

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem, Raymond Obstfeld, Ben Boos, and AG Ford. What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2012

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar highlights little-known African-American inventors in this lively, kid-friendly book. It includes James West, inventor of the microphone in cell phones; Frederick Jones, inventor of the refrigerated truck that supermarkets rely on to transport foods; and Dr. Percy Julian, who pioneered the chemical synthesis of plants that led to such drugs as cortisone. The profiles are augmented by informative sidebars and a framing narrative featuring two young children as they learn about the inventors of the gamma electric cell and the ice-cream scoop, improvements to traffic lights, open-heart surgery, and more—inventors who persevered against great odds.

Dinerstein, Joel. Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2003.

In this study of the influence of black popular culture on modern American life, Dinerstein looks at America during the “machine age,” the period between the two World Wars when innovative forms of music and dance helped a newly urbanized population cope with the increased mechanization of modern life. He argues that it was African American culture that ultimately provided the means of aesthetic adaptation to the accelerated tempo of modernity. Drawing on a legacy of engagement with and resistance to technological change, with deep roots in West African dance and music, black artists developed new cultural forms that sought to humanize machines. In "The Ballad of John Henry," the epic toast "Shine," and countless blues songs, African Americans first addressed the challenge of industrialization.

Fouché, Rayvon. Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and  Shelby J. Davidson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2005.

In this study, Rayvon Fouché examines the life and work of three African Americans: Granville Woods (1856–1910), an independent inventor; Lewis Latimer (1848–1928), a corporate engineer with General Electric; and Shelby Davidson (1868–1930), who worked in the U.S. Treasury Department. Detailing the difficulties and human frailties that make their achievements all the more impressive, Fouché explains how each man used invention for financial gain, as a claim on entering adversarial environments, and as a means to technical stature in a Jim Crow institutional setting.

Govenar, Alan B. Untold Glory: African Americans in Pursuit of Freedom, Opportunity, and Achievement. New York: Harlem Moon/Broadway, 2007.

Untold Glory offers a fresh perspective on one of the most fundamental elements of American history—the conquest of new frontiers. In twenty-seven fascinating first-person accounts, African Americans from different eras, backgrounds, and occupations explore and reflect on the meaning of frontier, both literally and metaphorically. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs and featuring an incisive introduction by Alan Govenar, Untold Glory is both an important addition to the field of African American history and an engaging, eye-opening look at some of the nation’s most daring, innovative, and influential pioneers.

Holmes, Keith C. Black Inventors: Crafting over 200 Years of Success. New York: Global Black Inventor Research Projects, 2008.

This book highlights the work of Black inventors from over seventy countries. This book documents a number of the inventions, patents, and labor-saving devices conceived by black inventors. The focus of this book is to introduce readers to the facts, that inventions created by black people, both past and present, were developed and patented on a global scale. This also means that there are inventors in every civilization whose ideas have been turned into inventions. In the past the focus has been on American and European inventors. Today, the new giants in the patenting process are Brazil, China, India, Japan, Nigeria, South Africa, and South Korea.

James, Portia P. The Real McCoy: African-American Invention and Innovation, 1619-1930. Washington: Published for the Anacostia Museum of the Smithsonian Institution by the Smithsonian Institution, 1989.

The Real McCoy was published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Smithsonian, this book surveys contributions by black inventors to agriculture, transportation, safety, industry, and other fields. Like the exhibit, the book focuses on outstanding black inventors, as well as anonymous innovators, who, as slaves, craftsmen, and workers, made important contributions to the United States. It includes over 100 black-and-white photographs.

Kulling, Monica, and David Parkins. To the Rescue!: Garrett Morgan Underground. New York: Tundra Books, 2016.

The son of freed slaves, Garrett Morgan was determined to have a better life than laboring in the Kentucky fields with his parents and ten siblings. He began by sweeping floors in a clothing factory in Cleveland, Ohio, where he decided to invent a stronger belt for sewing machines. When he was promoted to sewing-machine repairman, Garrett was on his way. In 1911, 146 workers died in the shocking Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, so Garrett decided to invent a safety hood for firefighters. Little did he know that most people wouldn't be interested in buying his safety hood when they discovered its inventor was black. But an explosion that trapped workers in a tunnel under Lake Erie soon changed all that. Garrett's hoods were rushed to the scene and used to rescue as many men as possible. Developed further, Garrett's invention came to save thousands of soldiers from chlorine gas in the trenches of World War I.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara. Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1988.

The author, an American sociologist professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education since the 1970s, recounts the extraordinary life of her mother, Dr. Margaret Morgan-Lawrence, one of the first African-American women to graduate from both Cornell University and Columbia University's School of Medicine to become a physician. Balm in Gilead captures both the life of an inspiring woman and the social, cultural, historical, and psychological forces that shaped the destinies of four generations of African-American women and their families.

Marchʹe, Wina. The Poetry of African American Invention:  When One Door Closes Another Opens. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2005.

This volume uses poetry to take a unique look at the contributions of African Americans to the scientific and industrial growth of the United States. The poems range from medium length to quatrains, from biographical to humorous. The biographical poems furnish a succinct look at the lives of the inventors, and most include the year(s) of their inventions. The humorous poems (such as "James Ricks") will appeal to children, with their brevity and unique rhyming schemes making them easy to memorize.

Paul, Richard, and Steven Moss. We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015.

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson utilized the space program as an agent for social change, using federal equal employment opportunity laws to open workplaces at NASA and NASA contractors to African Americans while creating thousands of research and technology jobs in the Deep South to ameliorate poverty. We Could Not Fail profiles 10 pioneer African American space workers whose stories illustrate the role NASA and the space program played in promoting civil rights.

Pursell, Carroll W. A Hammer in Their Hands: A Documentary History of Technology and the African-American Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2005.

Although denied access through most of American history to many new technologies and to the privileged education of the engineer, African Americans have been engaged with a range of technologies, as makers and as users, since the colonial era. A Hammer in Their Hands (the title comes from the famous song about John Henry, "the steel-driving man" who beat the steam drill) collects newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements for runaway slaves, letters, folklore, excerpts from biography and fiction, legal patents, protest pamphlets, and other primary sources to document the technological achievements of African Americans.

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

Race and technology are two of the most powerful motifs in American history, but until recently they have not often been considered in relation to each other. This collection of essays examines the intersection of the two in a variety of social and technological contexts. The essays challenge what editor Bruce Sinclair calls the "myth of black disingenuity"—the historical perception that black people were technically incompetent. Enslaved Africans actually brought with them the techniques of rice cultivation that proved so profitable to their white owners, and antebellum iron working in the South depended heavily on blacks' craft skills.

Sluby, Patricia Carter. The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

In this study, former United States primary patent examiner Patricia Carter Sluby pays homage to the inventive spirit of African Americans. Beginning with the contributions of enslaved Africans brought to American shores, Sluby introduces inventors and patent holders from all fields up to and including the leading edge of today's technology. Along with such recognizable figures as George Washington Carver and Madam C. J. Walker, readers will discover little-known or forgotten pioneers of devices, such as a tobacco substitute, a home security system, and a portable heart monitor. Particular attention is given to the innovations of women inventors and scientists.

Sullivan, Otha Richard, and James Haskins. African American Inventors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

For more than three centuries, African American inventors have been coming up with ingenious ideas. In fact, it is impossible to really know American history without also learning about the contributions of black discoverers. This collection brings their stories to life. In every era, black inventors have made people's lives safer, more comfortable, more convenient, and more profitable. This inspiring, comprehensive collection shines history's spotlight on these courageous inventors and discoverers. One by one, they persevered, despite prejudice and obstacles to education and training.

Thompson, Craig, and Roger James. The Abc's of Black Inventors: A Children's Guide. Silver Spring, MD: Beckham Publications Group, 2009.

Andre Beard made connecting trains easy with the Jenny coupler's big greasy hooks. Craig Thompson does it again with this bright, rhyme-filled book overflowing with black inventors such as, Elijah McCoy (the real McCoy), Augustus Jackson who revitalized ice cream, Madame C J Walker who changed black hair care, and many more. Craig Thompson moves the reader along with carefully chosen kid-speak that educates and stimulates. Put alongside the bright and vivacious illustrations by Roger James, this book comes alive.