Ras Olugbenga

“Black Men Can’t Code”

Ras Olugbenga
 “Black Men Can’t Code”
“The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling – if we would rightly comprehend him..” - Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, from the The Philosophy of History, 1837

“Perhaps in the future, there will be some African History to teach. But, at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness…” - Hugh Trevor Roper, Professor of English at Oxford University, 1964

In the movie “White Men Can’t Jump”, Billy (played by Woody Harrelson) is a white man who proves that he can play basketball well enough to beat the average Black ballers that hang around the local basketball court. Even though he’s “got game” - shooting, dribbling, passing - Billy is still mocked because he is a white man and according to Sidney (played by Wesley Snipes) white men are typically not able to play basketball well. If they can play, they certainly aren’t able to dunk. Unfortunately, Billy proves Sidney correct failing to dunk three consecutive times and loses a $2500 bet in the process. Personally, this film’s dramatization of stereotyping one’s ability illustrates the analogous societal confines Black people are often placed within. Just like with Billy, Black people have had to prove that we could create new styles and trends in various cultural fields (i.e. “got game”).  But because many of us have internalized inferiority stereotypes, we are perceived as incapable of participating in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) (i.e. “slam dunking”).

15 years ago, as a 5th grader at Gracemount Elementary school, each student in my class was designated 1-hour during 2 days of the week for “computer time”. I vividly remember telling my teacher I’d just stay at my desk and sketch in my notebook, rather than participate in computer time. Little did she know, this aversion was not just me being aloof but was the manifestation of embarrassment and intimidation. I had no clue how to work the “fancy” Dell desktop computers and was even more clueless about the nature of the internet and its function. At that time, the computer we had at home wasn’t as nearly sophisticated as those at Gracemount elementary and my family certainly did not have internet in our home. But I wasn’t bothered by not being computer literate, I played basketball all day and night. A computer was the least of my thoughts; computers were for nerds. On the southeast side of Cleveland, Ohio, math and science were never “cool” unless it involved counting money, or “cooking” some substance to make money. If you asked me to name a Black engineer or a contribution made to the field of Technology by Black people I would have asked “what’s an engineer?”.

But imagine if my school and other elementary schools taught ALL children regardless of their phenotype and ascribed culture, of the STEM accomplishments made by Black people dating back to pre-dynastic Kemet 3100 B.C. (Kemet translates to ‘land of the Blacks’ and today is referred to as Egypt)? Would this not alter our perception of the aptitude of Black people, contrary to images spewn by news media and entertainment? For example, what if I along with my southeast side Cleveland neighbors and friends were taught of Imhotep, the world’s first recorded architect, engineer and physician. Or even if we had been taught of the Moors who brought astrophysics, mathematics, geography, philosophy and chemistry (by the way the, prefix of chem- is of the same origin as kem-, meaning “Black”) to the Iberian peninsula during an 800 year rule. What’s even more fascinating is the science involved in Black culture even today that is taken for granted. MIT professor and Mathematician, Robert Eglash, wrote an entire book about the fractals present in Afrikan village designs, and even fractals within traditional Afrikan hairstyles such as braids. 

At age 17 I was fortunate to intern at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. During my time working at NASA I quickly noticed the lack of diversity in the STEM laden positions. NASA’s administration also recognized their issue of diversity inclusion and instituted the  “Trailblazers Outreach Program” to guide more Black youth to the STEM fields. The initiative was part of a larger push by President Obama’s Administration to promote the importance of STEM in public education. I holistically understand why Black children are not drawn to the STEM fields and consequently forego pursuing careers in the arena. Just as I was intimidated by the “advanced” dial-up internet and Dell desktops back in 2000, Black children often do not have the latest technology in their homes and lack the comfortability to utilize the latest tools and gadgets. Furthermore, the math and science departments at public schools are dismal compared to their suburban counterparts.

Upon graduating from college with a degree in Sociology I initially chose to put my entrepreneurial spirit and logistics skills developed at NASA to use. But less than 6 months after graduation I was serendipitously pulled into an education technology (ed-tech) startup by a college classmate. I had no problem calling myself an entrepreneur but until I enrolled in Tech Talent  South’s (TTS) 8-week code immersion program, I did not feel comfortable calling myself a “tech-entrepreneur”. I didn’t see myself as a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg type. I never thought I would be learning how to code or be on a path to becoming a computer programmer. I’ve always been an “entrepreneur” but I never thought I would be calling myself a “tech entrepreneur”, because… well, you know… Black Men Can’t Code. However, here I am, almost 25 years old and in a position others dream about - technology entrepreneurship.

Through Tech Talent South’s training in Ruby on Rails and a plethora of other computer languages, I’m having so many insights about a bevy of other academic fields of study and the Universe in general, just from learning the basics of computer coding. The TTS team’s patience with my learning curve is admirable and definitely appreciated. Afterall I had to overcome a subconscious phobia and technological aversion that has been with me for over 15 years, before the lessons in programming languages could begin making sense. Half of our 2015 winter class is during February or what has been deemed as Black History month. Reflecting on the STEM accomplishments of Black people all over the world, I am honored to be following the footsteps of the progenitors of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I am taking a newfound pride in studying technology, because not only does it stem (pun-intended) from my Ancestral lineage, I am using my skills to build a software-as-a-service platform to increase educational access for all students (check out www.milliondollarscholar.com). I am eager to learn as much as I can to continue to prove those who say “Black Men Can’t Code” wrong. I must evangelize the accomplishments of Black people in STEM fields. I must evangelize how cool STEM actually is, and how much money you can actually make from becoming proficient in coding! I look forward to the rest of TTS’ coding program, building our tech startup, and making Black (World) History in the process.