In one of the largest Pan African/African American Studies departments in the country–at California State University, Northridge–I just had a conversation with three of my classes over whether African American History Month still had relevancy, or whether it had simply become obsolete.
Rather shockingly though, most students–Black, White, Latino and Asian–readily said Black History Month should continue, that there was real sociopolitical value in its continuation.
Most of them blanched noticeably when I asked them to name at least five distinctive African Americans who had made significant contributions to the development of American society. Most just stared back at me as if I’d asked them to take pills that cause headaches.
Some managed one or several of the big 10–Carver, King, DuBois, Julian, Williams, Washington, Tubman, Douglass, Drew and Morgan–but couldn’t identify what contributions they made. A few even threw in Madam Walker, Benjamin Banneker and Crispus Attucks.
Then they started mentioning Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Snoop, MIA, Denzel and Jamie Foxx, and I rolled my eyes to heaven. While all of those names are memorable and significant, I expected someone to at least mention Jesse Russell, Mark Dean, James E. West, Lonnie Johnson, Shirley Jackson, George Alcorn, Kenneth Dunkley, or even George Crum.
OK, so the latter invented the potato chip, and Dr. Carver gave us peanut butter, among other things. Maybe Frito-Lay and Skippy were not so impressive. But Ken Dunkley invented 3-D glasses, George Alcorn gave us the imaging X-ray spectrometer, and Jackson was the first African American female Ph.D. graduate from MIT in physics. Lonnie Johnson invented and marketed the Super Soaker, and James E. West invented the modern microphone from which rappers spit their lyrics. Any and all should have been respected and acknowledged.
I was really taken aback that none had heard of either Mark Dean or Jesse Russell, two of the most important innovators in our modern lives.
Dean, for example, a math prodigy, helped invent the modern personal computer. Called the Microcomputer System with Bus Control Means for Peripheral Processing Devices,
Patent Number(s) 4,528,626, Dean and his co-inventor Dennis Moeller created a microcomputer system that laid the foundation for the growth of the information technology industry. His system was the method for using plug-in subsystems and peripherals like disk drives, video gear, speakers and scanners. Early in his career at IBM, Dean, as chief engineer building IBM personal computers, designed IBM PS/2 Models 70 and 80 and the Color Graphics Adapter. He still owns three of IBM’s original nine personal computer patents, and holds more than 20 patents in total.
He is in the computer engineering hall of fame.
Regarding cell phones, Jesse Russell, a hard-working, goal-directed Southern man from what some consider a disadvantaged, inferior school background, worked his way out of those restrictions, found his way into a summer education workshop at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and eventually entered and graduated from Tennessee State University, then still an HBCU, or Historically Black College or University. He earned a baccalaureate in electrical engineering, and the rest was history. He is currently acknowledged by a great many people as the father of the cell phone.
As we all know, a cell phone is in actuality a very sophisticated and flexible radio device which, like a walkie-talkie, receives and sends radio signals. These signals are bundled from wireless networks which operate on a grid that divides cities or regions into smaller cells, so that one cell may cover a few city blocks or it may cover up to 200 square miles.
Every cell uses a set of radio frequencies or channels to provide service in its specific area, and in each cell, there is a base station consisting of a wireless antenna and other radio equipment. The wireless antenna in each cell is the thing that links callers into the local telephone network, the Internet or another wireless network. Russell figured out how to make all of that work in a unified system of communications.
Coming all the way from where he was raised and schooled, he is now the recognized “father of digital cellular technology” in the United States. He is the former chief wireless architect for AT&T Bell Laboratories and also served as chief technology officer for Lucent Wireless. Russell holds more than 75 patents in digital cellular technologies, dual-mode digital cellular phones and digital software radio. In 1995, Russell was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering for his pioneering work in digital cellular communications.
These two, then, are what African American History Month is all about. Black youth need to be inspired toward competency and greatness, and to eschew complacency. Dropping out of school because we’re bored, or deciding that mediocrity is the reachable goal that best suits our collective needs is ludicrous, and such thoughts and actions need to be assailed and defeated in our communities. We have a glorious history of achievement and we need not be ashamed of any of it. We know how to overcome the odds.
People are not hiding our history and achievements. They are right in our faces, on Google and other networks in plain sight. We need to avail ourselves of as much of it as we can absorb it and get on up to higher ground.
No, we have not had enough Black History Month celebrations yet. Yes, they certainly can add a little glitz and pizazz to presentations in the schools, libraries, churches and community centers. But the serious point is that we need to learn from our history, keep telling it straight, and keep on making it. Nobody is holding us back now but us.
That is what our fabulous history of achievement and contributions teaches us. Nobody but us.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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