Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Should Singular Black (i.e. African) Achievements Be Celebrated?

This morning I received an e-mail which a close friend forwarded to me. I'm guessing she expected me to react positively and with joy. Unfortunately, I found it hard to - not because I didn't celebrate the achievements of the African-American man described in the e-mail, but because I questioned the raison d'etre of the e-mail. I've replicated the e-mail below along with my response...

E-mail Text
" America's High Tech "Invisible Man"

By Tyrone D. Taborn

You may not have heard of Dr. Mark Dean. And you aren't alone. But almost everything in your life has been affected by his work.
See, Dr. Mark Dean is a Ph.D. from Stanford University . He is in the National Hall of Inventors. He has more than 30 patents pending. He is a vice president with IBM. Oh, yeah. And he is also the architect of the modern-day personal computer. Dr. Dean holds three of the original nine patents on the computer that all PCs are based upon. And, Dr. Mark Dean is an African American.

So how is it that we can celebrate the 20th anniversary of the IBM personal computer without reading or hearing a single word about him? Given all of the pressure mass media are under about negative portrayals of African Americans on television and in print, you would think it would be a slam dunk to highlight someone like Dr. Dean.
Somehow, though, we have managed to miss the shot. History is cruel when it comes to telling the stories of African-Americans. Dr. Dean isn't the first Black inventor to be overlooked Consider John Stanard, inventor of the refrigerator, George Sampson, creator of the clothes dryer, Alexander Miles and his elevator, Lewis Latimer and the electric lamp.

All of these inventors share two things:
One, they changed the landscape of our society; and, two, society relegated them to the footnotes of history. Hopefully, Dr. Mark Dean won't go away as quietly as they did. He certainly shouldn't. Dr. Dean helped start a Digital Revolution that created people like Microsoft's Bill Gates and Dell Computer's Michael Dell. Millions of jobs in information technology can be traced back directly to Dr. Dean. More important, stories like Dr. Mark Dean's should serve as inspiration for African-American children. Already victims of the "Digital Divide" and failing school systems, young, Black kids might embrace technology with more enthusiasm if they knew someone like Dr. Dean already was leading the way.

Although technically Dr.. Dean can't be credited with creating the computer -- that is left to Alan Turing, a pioneering 20th-century English mathematician, widely considered to be the father of modern computer science -- Dr. Dean rightly deserves to take a bow for the machine we use today. The computer really wasn't practical for home or small business use until he came along, leading a team that developed the interior architecture (ISA systems bus) that enables multiple devices, such as modems and printers, to be connected to personal computers.

In other words, because of Dr. Dean, the PC became a part of our daily lives . For most of us, changing the face of society would have been enough. But not for Dr. Dean.. Still in his early forties, he has a lot of inventing left in him. He recently made history again by leading the design team responsible for creating the first 1-gigahertz processor chip.. It's just another huge step in making computers faster and smaller. As the world congratulates itself for the new Digital Age brought on by the personal computer, we need to guarantee that the African-American story is part of the hoopla surrounding the most stunning technological advance the world has ever seen.. We cannot afford to let Dr. Mark Dean become a footnote in history. He is well worth his own history book.

My Response
I think that his achievements are amazing, but...why do we always seek out and over-promote black folks who are doing well? Doesn't this make it more obvious that there are many who aren't?
Instead of wondering why he hasn't been given all the "recognition" we feel he's due, why don't we wonder why there aren't more like him?

My Friend's Response to Me
:) simple- if we don't then who will? And that directly impacts how many people like him we generate.

Fact: growing up in a society where most people in positions of power and/or success do not look like you limits an individual's idea of what/who they can be.
This is mitigated by strong families & home life. Unfortunately - those are no longer as prevalent for black children. If we don't tell our own stories we allow society to dictate what is told to our children and who their heroes should be.
That in turn impacts the number that can be more like Dr.Dean.
This is a discussion that I think is worth having, especially in the African community in the diaspora (African-Americans, African-Canadians, Caribbean Americans/Canadians, Afro-Britons, etc) because it may very well contain the key to changing (for the better) the way we view education and success. For too long, the "black" community has chosen to use one-off role models to show the way to the youth when all else fails. I don't believe it's working, so a change in how we seek to motivate our future generations may be overdue.
Now, I don't deny the achievements of Mr. Dean and both the author of the piece on Mr. Dean and my friend made some valid points. I took exception to two things in my friend's response:
 - the notion that kids growing up need to see someone LIKE THEMSELVES in a position of power or influence or prestige for them to desire it
 - papering over the influence of the family and working around that situation instead of through it.
Why? Because I think that's the ultimate cop-out for most black people.

What about the generations of poor rural kids from countries in Africa (using Nigeria as an example) in the 1930s to 1960s who were motivated to excel academically and became world-renowned engineers, doctors and scientists with qualifications from schools like Oxford and MIT? Others were architects of movements to end colonialism and became the founding fathers of their countries. Growing up, I can guarantee that they didn't even hear about (much less see) people like themselves, i.e. African/black, who were at the heights they eventually reached.

Bottom line - A child's success, especially in academics with the mental rigor involved therein, is MOSTLY about the emphasis placed on education by the people in that child's life - family, teachers, friends, etc.

Showcasing those who have achieved is all well and good and may have a minimal effect, but maybe I didn't like the way it came across in the email (despite all he's done, he hasn't been properly recognized, etc). That "whining" almost obscured the true genius of the man and does him a disservice. I'm sure his intent when coming up with those patents was largely for the intellectual gratification he received and not a yearning over global acclaim. What about his fellow inventors - it's not exactly as if we know all the Caucasian or Asian ones!

If I was a young kid who was inclined NOT to go to school and I read that email, I'd probably come away thinking that it WASN'T worth it to go through all that schooling only to end up without the acclaim I thought I deserved.

As long as we continue to over-celebrate the achievements of intellectuals of African descent, we'll continue to expose the stark reality - that there simply aren't enough of them to go around. Let's refocus our energies on ensuring that our youth have the knowledge and tools to become the intellectuals of tomorrow...and it starts with the family unit - we can't run away from that!

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