February is Black History Month. It is a time when we reflect on, celebrate and honor the work of African Americans, whose sacrifice, advocacy and innovations have elevated our economic, cultural and societal structure. During a season when there are attempts to erase the teaching and publishing of Black history, this is all the more reason to amplify the undeniable loss, legacy and limitless contributions of African Americans.
While our journey as African Americans is marred with slavery, lynching, racism and suffering, it also boasts of a people who are survivors and overcomers, proud and courageous. We are role models, scholars, builders, trailblazers and leaders. We are inventors, icons and innovators.
Our imprint and impact has not been without obstacles, road blocks, obstructionists, saboteurs and people who thought we were inferior to them. Yet we did not collapse under the weight of discrimination, animosity, exclusion and isolation.
Instead, we have steadily produced works of genius under these circumstances. Our contributions have been transformative and future-focused, even though there has been little fanfare to announce the prolific advances and innovations of African Americans. The following represent just a few who have made an indelible impression:
- Dr. Patricia Bath, an ophthalmologist and laser scientist, invented the Laserphaco Probe and techniques that improved cataract surgery.
- Marc Hannah, Ph.D., a renowned engineer, is the inventor of 3D technology for special effects, which advanced cinematography in films and television.
- Shirley Ann Jackson was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT. She was also the first woman in the history of MIT to receive a Ph.D. in physics. Her research influenced the invention of fiber optics cable, caller ID, call waiting and solar cells.
- Marc Dean, Ph.D., was a co-inventor of the personal computer and the color monitor.
- Marie Van Brittan Brown created the original design of security systems that are used today. She filed a patent for her closed-circuit TV invention in 1966.
- Jesse Eugene Russell is widely credited for conceptualizing and creating the foundational technology of the smartphone. He holds several patents in mobile and wireless technology.
- Garrett Augustus Morgan Sr. was the inventor of the three-position traffic signal of which our contemporary stoplights are derived. He also designed a protective hood that prevented smoke inhalation. This gear design evolved to what we use today as a gas mask.
These seven examples represent a microcosm of the countless inventions of African Americans. These African American inventors personify brilliance, tenacity, courage and leadership. Many of the things that make our lives better today was created by one of them. They did not launch their inventions exclusively for African Americans. It doesn’t appear that any of them thought that narrowly. They created inventions for the world, for tomorrows and for everyone.
Reflecting on African American contributions like these gives us an opportunity to reimagine how much greater we could be as a people if we broke down barriers, eliminated stigma, untethered ourselves from stereotypical behavior and became authentic allies. The possibilities are astounding.
For African Americans, our past was dark and harsh, but our success was inevitable. It is part of our lineage. It is in our DNA. It resonates in our soul. From the plantation to the presidency, from slavery to the Supreme Court, we express to our ancestors that their sacrifices were not in vain.
Black History Month reminds us of the power of perseverance, the rewards of resistance, and the hard work, heroism and hope that has helped all of humanity. When one of us rises, we all rise.
The Rev. Theresa A. Dear is a national board member of the NAACP and a Deseret News contributor.