Something is desperately wrong with computing’s historical record.
Just ask Arvid Nelsen, rare books and manuscripts librarian at Southern Methodist University, and he’ll tell you about an insidious gap in the archives that ought to be filled with the untold stories of black scientists and computing experts over the last century of great technological advancement.
His recent article “Race and Computing: The Problem of Sources, the Potential of Prosopography, and the Lesson of Ebony Magazine” comes on the heels of the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, which was inspired by a nonfiction book of the same name about black women mathematicians who worked for NASA during the space race.
Both the film and Nelsen’s article underscore how black scientists suffer “almost complete invisibility in most of the history of computing literature,” according to Nathan Ensmenger, editor in chief of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.
“If our discipline is to come to terms with the critical category of race—beginning with the hidden histories of people of color, but including as well the role of ‘whiteness’ in shaping the dominant narratives in much of our histories, then we are going to need to pursue the difficult path that Nelsen has described for us,” says Ensmenger.
A wealth of information is waiting to be tapped, but Nelsen says there’s a twist: It will be found in places that tech historians largely ignore. Such as Ebony magazine, for example.
In a recent interview, we asked Nelsen about his effort to blaze trails.
IEEE Computer Society: In your article, you talk about the “whiteness” of the historical records. What do you mean?
Nelsen: I was responding to the work of Carolyn de la Peña and her 2010 article in Technology and Culture, “The History of Technology, the Resistance of Archives, and the Whiteness of Race,” in which she describes the difficulty historians have in locating people of color in archival collections that document technology.
Her work emphasizes, in part, the role played by archives in shaping history, because the materials that archivists decide to collect, preserve, and make accessible for research play a very large role in shaping what can be known and documented about the past.
It must be remembered, however, that a lack of archival sources does not mean that persons of color did not exist or contribute to technological developments—simply that the institutions that collected materials either consciously or unconsciously preserved only or substantially the records of white people, most often white men.
IEEE Computer Society: You’re a white researcher/librarian who works in Texas. What got you interested in minorities in tech?
Nelsen: Because I am an archivist and librarian, my work was rooted in my desire for the Charles Babbage Institute to have rich and varied published and archival source materials that would enable students and scholars to explore the vastness and complexity of the history of computing, as much as possible.
In 2008, I started to balance what I felt was a very one-sided view of computing found in archival collections. I actively looked for published materials that expressed a wide variety of viewpoints, including those of individuals and communities of color, as well as materials looking at religion and spirituality, gender and sexuality, and political views ranging from the far right to the far left.
In time, I received more requests to give class presentations on this Social Issues collection of mine than any other.
As I researched further, I learned that several historians had written about the desire and need to look more closely at the role of African Americans and other persons of color in computing, but little had actually been written.
Then a teaching assistant offered to introduce me to someone working in Oakland at the group #YesWeCode.
Through that contact, I was connected to several other leaders of contemporary initiatives to provide out-of-school computer education programs for people of color. I was inspired.
I was also surprised to discover a significant movement among computer professionals who worked specifically with low-income, inner-city communities of color in the late 60s and early 70s. None of the historians I spoke with seemed to be aware of these programs. Evidence of these initiatives was difficult to find, mostly because few feature articles addressed them.
I believe and hope that when the truth about the role and contributions of persons of color in computing becomes more broadly known, it will have a positive impact on the attitudes of the industry and young people of color.
IEEE Computer Society: You found that Ebony magazine published only 57 profiles of African Americans in electronics and computing for nearly the second half of the 20th Century. How did you react to that discovery?
Nelsen: The truth is, I wasn’t expecting to find any, let alone so many.
I was actually looking for advertisements about programs geared toward entry-level training for underserved communities. I wasn’t looking for information about accomplished professionals with advanced degrees.
I think that I was like many people who have perhaps unconsciously accepted the prevailing narrative that computing was mostly white and male.
I was terribly excited that source materials were out there, but astonished that they were not where I or historians apparently expected to find them.
I was also perplexed that so many people could be readily identified in published materials and yet go undiscovered or unnoticed by scholars—that so much had been written about the need to address race in computing and the difficulties in locating materials. Yet, here it was, just where apparently no one had looked.
I do have to say that coupled with excitement over this “discovery” is an uncomfortable feeling. It feels akin to the “discovery of the new world,” which was of course already known and occupied. Publications by and for communities of color may have been underutilized by historians, but I wonder if they would have been known, valued, and referenced sooner if the history of computing as a field were itself more inclusive and diverse.
IEEE Computer Society: What do you want the average reader to take away from your research?
Nelsen: I hope that different people take away different things.
I hope that libraries and archives devoted to the history of computing and related fields will become interested in examining their own collecting strategies and will prioritize identifying collections of persons of color and/or business started, run by, and/or serving persons of color for acquisition, preservation and promotion.
I hope that researchers will be inspired to complement their conventional archives searches and look more directly at the communities they have long hoped to write about. If computing has had little to say about persons of color, we may do better to heed what communities of color have had to say about computing.
I hope the general reader will see that we have only begun to scratch the surface in showing the contributions of persons of color to computing.
I was recently asked if I thought the movie Hidden Figures really demonstrated that computing was more diverse than has been represented or if the protagonists were the exception rather than the rule.
I think there are many, many more stories to be told.