A father, a son and the technology giant between them
What: Think Black Launch Party
When: 4 pm Sun., Sep. 15
Where: Village Books
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
“Double-consciousness lies at the heart of a basic question asked over and over again by members of racial minorities: Is what is happening to me because of who I am as a person, or who I am as a person of color? …What pathology, then, arises when the soul’s dogged strength alone cannot keep these warring ideals apart? What happens when that measuring tape of contempt turns inward as a yardstick by which one gauges oneself? It becomes the ‘internalized racism’ that my father struggled with throughout his life.”
Clyde Ford explores that life, amplified against his own narrative as a boy in the Bronx walking around in his father’s shoes, his father transplanted to Manhattan to toil as an executive at one of the foremost technology firms in the world.
In 1947 his father, John Stanley Ford, went to work at International Business Machines as the first black software engineer in America. He was personally hired by IBM’s daunting leader, Thomas Watson Sr.
This was the year when Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, brought on personally by Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey.
First specializing on the IBM 407, John Stanley Ford, who died in 2000, was literally present at the dawn of the Digital Age. He worked at the company for 37 years.
Kirkus Reviews judges Ford’s new book, Think Black, published by Amistad/HarperCollins, as among the most anticipated nonfiction books this year. It is surely that, and more. Part searching memoir, part meditation on race, society and technology, in searing and provocative detail this book from the award-winning Bellingham author is essential reading.
An IBM veteran himself, Clyde Ford runs a small software firm in Bellingham. He is also an insightful psychotherapist and expert in transformative mythology. An author of many books, his latest is transcendent.
“Think Black started out as a ‘hidden figures’ story about my father as the first Black software engineer in America at IBM,” Ford relates. “I thought I would be writing about the ‘Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson’ moment that happened between my father and Thomas J. Watson, and everything that flowed from there.”
There’s still some debate, Ford tells us in early chapters, whether to call the IBM 407 the first true computer or the last of the programmable accounting machines.
“It’s a safe bet to trace the origins of modern digital technology as least as far back as the IBM 407,” Ford notes, “IBM announced the model in 1949, not long after my father began his career. The company trained him to operate and program the machine. So it’s a safe bet to say that my father was present at the dawn of the Digital Age….
“My father understood the code, and before he even began working with computers, he understood the power of any code to create, shape and transform the world,” Ford writes.
Transformative as that code was, another transformative code—a social one—was rewriting American life as people of color began moving with accelerating frequency into roles formerly the exclusive domain of the overclass. Yet the trauma, the deep divisions and barriers remain.
The elder Ford’s success at IBM came at a price. He internalized the racism he encountered in the workplace and brought it home to unleash on his family.
“My father developed a unique form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of being the first black systems engineer at IBM,” Ford writes, “one known to many who are racial, ethnic or gender ‘firsts’…a reaction to feeling ‘under a microscope,’ ‘always on display’ or ‘representing one’s race.’ ”
As much as Ford’s book is about his father, it is also a book about himself, his own journey in parallel and in contrast to his father, and in the ferment of the nascent Civil Rights movement.
“I read ravenously of the accomplishments of Black women and men throughout history,” Ford relates. “I promoted passionately the ideas of Black Power and Black nationalism. I believed that Black women and men could accomplish anything they set their minds to, that skin color had nothing at all to do with intellect. And I still believe firmly in those ideas. Even though as a young person, a radical young Black man, those beliefs set me at odds with my father.
“My father’s deep wound of ‘racial inferiority’ only deepened during the years he worked at IBM,” Ford relates. “As time wore on, and my father witnessed himself passed over for promotions, or placed in the position of training men who would ultimately become his superiors, something gave inside of him.
“After returning from the March on Washington, where he stood with millions of other Black men and women listening to Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, my father returned to New York City to help found the 100 Black Men’s Club. Even more astounding to me, he began an ‘Underground Railroad’ helping promising young Black men and women get into IBM.”
When Clyde’s moment arrived to step into the shoes of his father and go to work as a software engineer at IBM in the early 1970s, he found it was not a forever fit.
“I unearthed a revolting story about the dark side of technology and race,” Ford relates. “IBM was centrally involved, and deeply engaged, with some of the worst racial atrocities of the modern era. Eugenics, the Holocaust, and apartheid. And, more recently in developing facial recognition technology for enhanced racial profiling.”
Writing the book, Ford came to a personal reckoning.
“One route toward this reckoning is resignation that being Black in America will always mean facing brutality and oppression, whether in chains from a slaver or cuffs from a police officer predisposed to violence against people of color. While I can never ignore or forget the brutality perpetrated against people who look like me,” he writes, “I am not ready to define myself solely in terms of this brutality and oppression. Doing so, I believe, leads down the road to victimization.
“‘A Black man has to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as Whitey.’ I grew to greatly resent this notion,” Ford relates, “even as I learned to accept its truth.”
His book stands as a triumphant rebuke to that.
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