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  • The History of Technology, the Resistance of Archives, and the Whiteness of Race
  • Carolyn de la Peña (bio)

What gets remembered is not simply a matter of documents but also of choice, of deciding what we will write about. And that decision often rests on what we imagine is possible to write about.

—Bruce Sinclair, 2004

At the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in 2004, I presented a paper in a session titled "Race and Technology"—the only session at this meeting that directly engaged race. I have a very clear memory of looking out at the group (I'd call it a crowd, but I think there were maybe fifteen people in attendance) assembled to hear the paper and intuiting that perhaps race was not a core concern for historians of technology.

My reaction was both right and wrong. In fact, the year I made my presentation, Bruce Sinclair published Technology and the African-American Experience, a collection of essays on the relationship between race and technology, prefaced by an eloquent case for the importance of weaving race into our approach to the technological past. The next year, Carroll Pursell's A Hammer in Their Hands, a collection of primary sources on African American contributions to technology, showcased the resources available to historians who would work on race, while urging those reading to start writing. These books were followed in 2008 by Evelynn Hammonds and Rebecca Herzig's edited volume on race and science. Race, we might conclude, is becoming a core concern for a growing number of scholars working in and around the edges of the history of technology, and we now have the edited volumes to prove it.1 [End Page 919]

Yet if a critical mass of historians in the field seems interested in developing studies that engage race, it is also apparent that most of us are not yet pursuing such a task. Pursell wrote in 2005 that "even a cursory glance" at the literature in the field reveals "the almost total lack of attention to matters of race, just as gender was once ignored."2 His assertion echoed Sinclair's comment a year earlier that the relationship between race and technology "has yet to be understood," and Herzig's more stark assessment that "generally, historians of technology ignore the subject of race altogether."3 A quick survey of articles published in Technology and Culture suggests that not much has changed during the intervening years. Between 2004 and 2009, four articles out of the roughly hundred published devoted primary attention to analyzing the relationship between race and technology.4 These four articles doubled the number that appeared between 1999 and 2003. Between 1995 and 1998 there were three,5 and between 1989 and 1994, none.6 So, the situation has improved over the years, but even the four published between 2004 and 2009 account for only 4 percent of the total number of articles in the journal. [End Page 920]

Historians of technology stand at a moment when a vast discrepancy exists between what we would like to be doing and what we are accomplishing. We can, in the fashion of the books that have appeared, make the argument that historians must regard race as inextricably linked to the history of technology in the United States. And we can continue to publish technological histories that do not pay attention to race. Interestingly, given that this essay originated as remarks presented at a workshop panel on "Race and Gender," this discrepancy does not apply to the question of gender and the history of technology. Both gender and race were largely absent from the early decades of the field, but twenty years ago, historians of technology began urging one another to take gender seriously, and many have done so. One could argue, of course, that the push to study gender simply came sooner than did the push to study race, and we have simply not waited long enough to see a thousand flowers bloom. But I conclude that this seems unlikely to happen. Gender studies flourished following the first major publications during the 1970s in the history of technology, but we...