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Book Scene: 'Think Black' tackles racism in the tech industry

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Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a Humanities Washington Think and Drink event moderated by the inestimable Clyde W. Ford.

Ford is one of the most interesting people most of us will ever have the pleasure of meeting, and in addition to being a respected speaker he’s also the acclaimed author of a number of books, including the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award-winning mystery “The Long Mile.” His latest work, “Think Black: A Memoir,” chronicles his years working for IBM, and his father’s stint there as America’s first black software engineer.

“Think Black” is something far bigger than a tech memoir. To begin with, it’s more than a memoir: It’s a biography of Clyde’s father, John Stanley Ford, and his grandfather, John Baptist Ford, a Pullman porter during the 1920s. It’s Clyde’s story of growing up black in New York City during the civil rights era, torn between parents whose only common ground seemed to be their intelligence, a love of music, and their desire to create a better world for their children.

It’s an exploration of the intersection between technology and race in America during the 20th century, and in the world at large. It’s also an indictment of IBM, a company that was involved in eugenics in the 1920s, whose technology was used to catalogue Jews during the Holocaust and blacks during South African apartheid, and which has recently come under fire for its creation of technology used by police departments to aid in racial profiling.

I found the book’s exploration of the inner workings of IBM particularly fascinating. A company that, to this day, presents itself as a forward-thinking problem-solver, it’s been involved in highly unsavory endeavors for most of its existence. Thomas J. Watson, IBM’s founder and the man who hired Stanley Ford, publicly portrayed himself as a Branch Rickey-esque promoter of equality, and perhaps he did see himself as such, but he was a businessman first and foremost.

Within the company, he demanded cult-like obeisance and adoration from his employees; an official songbook was circulated in the organization containing lyrics like “that ‘man of men’ our friend and guiding hand, The name of T.J. Watson means a courage none can stem.” Watson’s hiring of Stanley Ford and other black men into mid-level positions with the company was a calculated move, as was his cultivation of a family-like atmosphere that kept employees comfortable enough to overlook certain injustices.

During Stanley Ford’s time with IBM, however, his warm feelings toward Watson cooled somewhat, and after he was denied promotion following Watson’s death in 1956, he worked covertly to subvert IBM’s hiring practices by coaching other black men on what would be covered on the hiring exam, to help them obtain positions with the company.

“Think Black” is a lot of things. It’s a relatively short book that covers a lot of ground, succinctly and engagingly. Most importantly to me, it’s a warm and compassionate yet unflinching exploration of the fraught experience of being a black man in the emerging tech world of the mid- to late 20th century. It opens a window to a very important and largely unacknowledged place and time in history, and we are the better for having looked through it.

• “Think Black: A Memoir” by Clyde W. Ford was published in September by Amistad Press. It retails for $25.99.

• Emily Ring is manager and event coordinator for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space every week.

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