A few days ago I was asked by The Student Movement to write a piece for the annual national ritual where black achievement and achievers are trotted out ceremoniously (or not) from the pages of history to be displayed upon the stage of American consciousness.
I ask to what end? Really!
Is it to show doubting Americans that we too can achieve and have achieved? That we can achieve and are achieving intellectually in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? I humbly submit, that’s been played out, because we already know. We know we can and have achieved whether or not others are aware or are just discovering it for themselves. We do not need someone else’s paternalistic opinion or condescending approval of our God-given gifts and talents to know our true self-worth. So, yes this reason has been played out like the claim that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World when there were in fact grand civilizations of peoples already living and loving here, and fully self-aware that they were. We also don’t need the month of February to “discover” black achievement when, if there is any real interest, it is easily and freely available online at our fingertips by, for example, simply googling “black achievements in science.”
So, I ask to what end?
I believe it is to show that, despite the bans and barriers historically imposed and the burdens of low expectations, we have been and forever remain “fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41: 52). It is a necessary ritual of sacred remembrance in an age of un-remembering, a time and space where history and its lessons are too often blissfully ignored and sometimes even redacted or re-imagined with alternative facts. It is a needed re-telling of the resilience of the human spirit—a testament to a people who lived not in the low expectations of men but in the divine expectations of Almighty God. Indeed, this is the social, cultural and spiritual value of revealing the “Hidden Figures” of American scientific and technological achievements.
This is not your father’s “black achievements in science,” piece; rather it is reason and revelation that will never grow old. It tells a timeless and universal truth situated deeply within the American story. Herein lies the demonstrable value and unshakeable truth of true American Dreamers—though some only see the worst in us, the best of America blossoms in the souls of black folks. It corrects both the historical record and persistent myths about black inferiority and white supremacy.
This truth rises despite a history of American science and education that intentionally excluded women and blacks from even enrolling in college classes, much less completing degrees. This truth ascends regardless of the insulting and misguided statements that the late Supreme Court Justice Scalia made from the bench on December 9, 2015 in a case regarding affirmative action, that “Most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools." Here, Scalia, like many others of high and low influence, sought to discredit and denigrate the black intellect, black schools and black scientists. But, the whole truth is that most scientists in this country, regardless of race, do not come from elite schools. So, his prejudicial statement also managed to collaterally devalue most scientists of every race, gender, class and creed.
Also, a still fresh collective remembering in which an entire political movement in America’s last presidential elections had its inglorious roots in questioning and scoffing at the legitimacy, including the stellar academic achievements, of the first black President. We now have a President who, even at his press conference to mark the start of Black History Month, never sees or speaks empathetically about the goodness, resilience and brilliance of black America, but reflexively dredges up the worst. From my own personal history, in two instances among others, I still vividly recall more than a decade and a half later one of my colleagues wondering out loud in a committee meeting why persons from countries like the Caribbean needed PhD’s in the sciences. I still remember the administrator who rather than compliment my achievement incredulously thought I received my quarter million-dollar National Science Foundation research grant not based on the scientific merits of my scientific proposal but simply because I am black.
So, for me, these historical contexts and lived experiences of nagging suspicion and raw disrespect of black intellect and achievement provides important, relevant and urgent reasons to cite, recite and celebrate black achievements. Our achievements are undoubtedly more remarkable because of the struggle, out of which we continue to birth resistance, renaissance and excellence. This month of re-telling is akin to the days of Passover. For, we are the living oracles of Ephraim whom “God has made fruitful in the land of our affliction.” (Adapted from Genesis 41:52.)
Moving forward and higher, it is critically important to American democracy and our global economic competitiveness that we create opportunities, systems and cultures that values and nurtures the God-given curiosity and talents of all, regardless of color, gender, class or creed. That would be the best legacy we can give to black achievers, past, present and future, in science.
In the end, doing science is sweet labor in the works of God. It allows us all to look outward in awe to the heavens and inward with reverence into our consciousness. Science is one of the most remarkable journeys of the human mind and soul into the works of God. We all have an inalienable right to seek, search and research His works and His words and to be duly recognized for our worth and achievements in such pursuits.