I recently viewed Hidden Figures starring Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer, a beautiful film that explores the contributions of African American women who worked in NASA’s space program. Before IBM’s were implemented, black women such as Katherine G. Johnson were computers who calculated launch and landing distances – by hand. But let me let that sink in … black women.were.computers.
As a historical sociologist who studies slavery and rebellion in the Americas, I almost can’t help but juxtapose that statement alongside the fact that enslaved people were counted as part of plantation property – with animals, furniture, and other effects. Enslaved people were part of the equipment, the raw materials for capital accumulation on cotton, sugar, coffee, tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations.
Often when we talk about racial inequality contemporarily, we use the metaphor of a running race in which European descendants got a head start on African descendants. But that’s not the complete truth. If we carry the metaphor forward, as journalist and lawyer Antonio Moore states, we find that black people were the shoes that white people wore to win the race — raw material commodities. People like WEB DuBois, Eric Williams, Walter Rodney, Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Cedric Robinson, and Robin DG Kelley have also argued that Africans’ labor value directly contributed to European and American industrial wealth. But it wasn’t just the free labor that made the white world wealthy; black bodies themselves were a form of currency. The commodification of black bodies continues most blatantly in the private prison industry, partly facilitated by the school-to-prison pipeline.
In light of this, it is still [but perhaps shouldn’t be] mind-blowing to think of black women NASA employees as computers, whose human capital helped propel Western technologies to unseen heights.