PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

A Hammer in Their Hands

by Carroll Pursell

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005

304 pages. Illustrations, bibliographical references, further readings, and index

$40.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-262-16225-3

In A Hammer in Their Hands, Carroll Pursell presents an interpretive synthesis of the history of technology and its particular connection to the African-American past. As a scholar of technology with over 20 publications, including Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas (second edition, 1990) and American Technology (2001), he is the ideal candidate to do so. Wide learning characterizes this ambitious volume as Pursell directs the reader to a number of arenas within seven distinct periods in history, from the colonial era to the closing of the twentieth century. Pursell holds intellectual interest by supplying evidence of a significant and complex story. There is a time frame, a subject matter, or a voice from the past that will connect to every reader. He brings to the fore important figures, inventions and patents, technical drawings, and political, environmental and social commentary all of which contribute insights regarding African-American men and women and their longstanding contribution to the development of American technology.

Pursell states that the book was compiled to “emphasize the long experience that black people have had with technology in America and to clarify the meaning of that experience” (xi). As editor, he attempts to reposition this generally unknown narrative in a new light and with collective appeal. The volume fits comfortably among the extensive body of scholarship on African-American history that has emerged in recent decades. More so, it accompanies other modern works, by researchers such as Portia J. James, Neal V. Loving, Judith Ann Carney, Joel Dinerstein, Rayvon Fouche and Bruce Sinclair, completing a comprehensive collection that merges history, technology and the African-American experience.

Pursell indicates three goals for the volume: first, to demonstrate that both enslaved Africans and African Americans have always been involved in the creation and use of technologies and therefore must be included in this story; second, to present the chapter selections as illustrations of the wide range of sources available for future projects; and third, to offer the selections as starting points for scholars who may want to explore the subject further. Linked to these goals is Pursell’s examination of the role of race and gender in the history of technology. “Since it could be comfortably assumed that, almost by definition, no people of color or women had an important role in designing the built environment, they could justifiable be left out of the history of technology” (xiii). Pursell critically addresses such falsehoods and formally speaks to the other half of the history of technology--the half that has been consistently left out--the African-American population.

The book includes contributions from a range of historical figures and contemporary authors on subjects related to African-American skills, ingenuity, and technology. Primary documents, including runaway slave ads, articles, patents, letters, technical drawings and excerpts from biographies, demonstrate agency and the “refiguring of power relationships.” These historical elements all support a theme consistently developed by Pursell through the book which is that throughout American history, from the earliest of colonial times to the present, African-Americans have pursued technological knowledge, mastered technological skills and developed technological innovations. It is important to recognize this significant aspect of black culture and the black experience.

Certain parts of the book stand out, such as the “Colonial Era” which tells of African medicine in the New World and the contribution of technical skills by enslaved Africans as revealed through runaway slave ads. For the student of black colonial history, the correspondence between Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson is compelling.

In “Antebellum Years,” we see the important roles of African-American artisans, inventors and entrepreneurs in an emerging national economy. Agency takes shape for slaves who had mastered technical skills. In “War, Reconstruction and Segregation,” we see persistent efforts to participate in the new industrial order and the South’s struggle following the Civil War to “catch up” to the industrial development that had been taking place in the north. Though racist laws and customs persisted in an effort to enforce a tradition of economic and social exploitation, African Americans in the South and elsewhere continued to actively participate in the technological life of the nation (91).

“The Progressive Era” is marked by the recognition of black ingenuity through patent records and lists of inventions, and reports in the black press of successes in black business and manufacturing. Chapters such as “The Training of Negroes for Social Power,” by W. E. B. Dubois, add to the theme of the power of education, the power of intelligent work and leadership and the power of technical knowledge (121). Also in this era, Pursell presents “The Colored Inventor: A Record of Fifty Years” by Henry E. Baker (165). Baker makes note of the 50-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the “substantial progress” of black people including in the area of inventions. At least 800 patents were issued “telling a wonderful story of progress of the race in the mastery of the science of mechanics” (168). “World War II and The Cold War” takes us from postwar prosperity to the civil rights movement. War workers are provided industrial opportunities and in the post-war era, black workers are in closer contact with the emerging high-technologies. “The Movement and Beyond” carries the story to the end of the twentieth century with African-Americans positioning themselves with regards to the “rapidly changing technologies of power in America.” This insightful section also details black women as engineers and technologists, environmental concerns and the racial divide on the internet.

Adding strength to Pursell’s themes is the role of black women in technology. The reader is introduced to the inventor Clara Frye, the aviator Janet Harmon Bragg, black women in wartime airplane assembly, and black women engineers and technologists. Pursell emphasizes that women had a presence in this story that requires further illumination. In fact, his selections on the topic indicate that a separate volume covering the story of black women and technology could be assembled with little difficulty. In terms of weaknesses, Pursell has left little room. More illustrations by way of photographs and technical drawings would add texture to the readings. Curiously, there is no afterword or concluding notes, leaving the reader to wonder about Pursell’s thoughts at the end of this presentation. Finally, Pursell considers briefly how the fields of African-American history and the history of technology have become more complex, more theoretical and more radical “in the sense of looking at the social and cultural patterns that shape experiences and meanings we take from them” (xii). Further discussion of this subject matter would provide orientation for the researcher or academic looking at the book as potential source material.

A Hammer in Their Hands is a book of progress, power and ingenuity that recognizes and illuminates the rich history of skilled African-American artisans, engineers, designers and inventors. This is a story long ignored as stereotypes and damaging misconceptions of the unskilled and unknowledgeable African-American have been reinforced. The limitations of traditional methods of “doing history” have been removed. The general readership or the student of technology and/or African-American history seeking balance in the American historical narrative will find it here. A pleasure to read, A Hammer in Their Hands not only provides a tremendous launching pad for further research, but leads the way in this emerging field of study. This is a fine book that fits comfortably among one’s collection of well-thumbed African-American history texts.

References Cited

Pursell, C., ed. 2001. American Technology.London: Blackwell.

_______, ed. 1990. Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas, second edition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


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