NYU Professor Dr. Charlton D. McIlwain shines a light on unsung tech pioneers in his new book: ‘Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter.’
By S.C. Stuart
Those of us who have studied the history of technology have likely read a lot about “white, male wizards who magically manufactured digital tools that determine our future,” says NYU Professor Charlton D. McIlwain.
“I [wanted] to tell the powerful story of the black women and men who took their own technological futures in their own hands,” he says. “How black folks from the seventies and beyond pulled themselves up by their technological bootstraps and began to use computers and the Internet to determine our own fates.”
Dr. McIlwain, Vice Provost of Faculty Engagement and Development at NYU and a professor of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU’s Steinhardt School, is doing just that in his new book: Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter. He explores racial injustice and highlights a largely unknown history of the engineers, entrepreneurs, and hobbyists of color who helped build the internet as we know it today.
We spoke to Dr. McIlwain ahead of the book’s release on Nov. 1 and the Afrotech conference in Oakland, California, on Nov. 7. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
PCMag: Dr. McIlwain, give us the backstory on writing this book.
Dr. Charlton D. McIlwain: I wanted to understand the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Here was a movement that had accomplished something that had not been [done] since the early 1970s-to catapult racial issues, particularly the violence that black people suffer at the hands of the criminal justice system-back onto the public agenda.
What I did not know was that my pursuit to understand its digital roots would lead me back to the 1960s, to chronicle a much longer story about black people’s relationship to computing, the internet, and on through today’s new innovations in so-called artificial intelligence. I made it my challenge, my goal, and my responsibility to correct the historical record for many generations of people.
You name-check many unsung heroes in the book as part of your Vanguard, starting with Derrick Brown. Tell us about him.
I met Derrick when I first discovered the “Universal Black Pages” [the first black search engine/directory, launched at Georgia Tech in 1994], one of the most significant moments in the development of black cyberculture.
From the moment I first talked with Derrick, I could tell his passions ran long and deep. He channeled those passions into the technologies he helped to build while he was an engineering grad student at Georgia Tech. But his passion was really about people. Black people. Using this new tool called the web to bring us together, to showcase the wealth of knowledge, ingenuity, and talent replete within black culture.
William Murrell’s story is great too. He was one of the very few black engineers at IBM and became the owner of Boston’s largest and only black-owned computer store. He was also an activist who used his Osborne I, the world’s first ‘portable’ computer, to connect with people in the city’s black community information center.
William didn’t set out to be an activist. He had ideas. He gained valuable skills while working at IBM. He wanted to make money and live the good life. But when you end up in a place like Boston, with its history of bitter racial politics, and add to that being one of the few with the kind of computer knowledge and expertise he had, you basically become an activist by default. Wiliam’s mission became not just to sell computer hardware and software, but to show his customers in mostly white Cambridge that he, and people like him, had a stake in the growing computer revolution.
You stress the importance of HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] in educating many of those in your book. These include early Motorola engineer Camille Dozier and David Ellington, who pitched NetNoir to Ted Leonsis at AOL as a cyber gateway to Afrocentric culture in 1994, alongside Malcolm Casselle. Do HBCUs still act as a diverse source of talent to the tech industry today?
There was a time when HBCUs were the only place that black folks could get a good education, surrounded by a community that affirmed our culture. When places like IBM and other computer companies in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond began looking to hire black folks, that’s where they drew their talent.
Places like Fisk. Tougaloo. North Carolina A&T. Wilberforce. Alabama State. Howard. That tradition continues, exemplified by places like Google’s new Tech Exchange partnership with HBCUs or a large number of companies that have signed on to the Congressional Bipartisan Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Caucus’s HBCU Partnership Challenge.
Back to NetNoir at AOL, which was a key in entrepreneur Farai Chideya’s success. She launched PopandPolitics.com on the AOL-based platform after leaving Harvard, while working for Newsweek and CNN. How did you come across her story?
Well, I have long been a fan of Farai’s work, and had the opportunity a couple of times to be on her radio show back during the 2008 election season. When I picked up this story about black folks who were key to the early web’s development, I had intended to do much more about the connection to black journalists. So I purposefully went back to see where I might find Farai in this context in the early/mid-nineties and connected back to her story, which was there, connected to the WELL [Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, known as the first “virtual community”], Omar Wasow’s New York Online, and NetNoir.
You also pay homage to the pioneers of black computer networking, the SYSOPS (system operators) including: Ward Christiensen and Randy Seuss in Chicago (1979); Tom Jennings (1984); Ken Onwere, a physicist from San Diego SDSU who started AfroNet (1993), Idette Vaughan (Blacknet BBS, Brooklyn, 1989), and Omar Wasow (New York Online BBS). Were you active on any of these platforms back then, as a user?
Ha! That was one of my earliest realizations when I started writing this book. During all of this time, as black folks my age were doing all of these cool things with computer networking and the web, the most exciting thing I was doing on a computer at the time was playing Free Cell [Solitaire], typing up term papers, and waiting patiently for my AOL dialup to connect-usually to no avail.
Your book brings us right up to date with Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Charlene Caruthers (Founding National Director of Black Youth Project 100), all modern-day activists behind #BlackLivesMatter and the national ride to Ferguson (Aug. 8 — Sept. 1, 2014).
Garza, Tometi, Cullors, and Caruthers are activists, organizers, and movement leaders. Organizing, political change, that is their game. Technology is just a tool and they are careful not to see technology as an end in itself, but as a means to an end.
How does their approach to technology differ, in your opinion, from the Vanguard you talk about earlier in the book?
The Vanguard were technologists. They were enamored of the new digital tools they believed they could use to do well for themselves and do good for the black community. They believed that in some way, shape, or form, the new information superhighway would liberate us.
Finally, if you do a follow-up version in the future, at PCMag we’ve featured several current tech heroes of color, including: Code Burnout; Kaydabi; NASA’s Dr. Charles Norton; and Aniyia Williams, Founder/CEOs of Tinsel, part of Google’s Code 2040 residency funding/incubator for Black and Latinx Entrepreneurs.
Thank you! I have very much been thinking in that direction for what I think would be a very good Part II.
Catch Dr. Charlton D. McIlwain on his book tour in Washington, D.C., New York, Seattle, and San Francisco starting on Nov. 13. Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter is available now.