This should be a book, but after 30 years online, I still don’t know exactly how to start it or how to end it. How about I say that it started way back in the 80s and it never ends.
Somewhere in the mid 80s I became associated with a fantastic collegiate organization known as the National Society of Black Engineers. Like most national black organizations, like fraternities and sororities, I had never heard of such a thing until I set foot on campus. I had been vaguely aware of the Kappa House on Crenshaw and Washington Boulevard just a mile north of my house, but in those highschool days I couldn’t read greek letters. I just knew they threw the most insanely awesome parties I would never be invited to. Neither of my parents were much into greek life in their respective college days. My dad pledged a local frat at UConn and my mother was aghast at such things. So outside of the annual report in Ebony Magazine about the 100 most influential black Americans, I had no idea what a grand polemarch was or what anybody black did in college. Which is altogether strange since I was expected by all to get a PhD, like my uncle who also dug the sciences.
NSBE at the time had something on the order of 6,000 members nationwide. At Cal State, I was in Region Six, aka ‘The Mighty Six’. Since I had been accustomed in my life to assuming various privileges associated with The Talented Tenth and having sat out in the real world for four years after highschool, it was rather inevitable that I would take any advantage of leadership among my black contemporaries. NSBE offered the opportunity. As well, I pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, whose notable members include Thurgood Marshall and MLK, among many illustrious others. When they said “You can always tell and Alpha Man, but you can’t tell him much.” that was right up my alley.
Sometime during or after my third year, I was elected to national office and joined the board. Every one of those men and women, who became close friends, have seen great success over the years. But even then, I was odd out of the bunch. Where most of them were engineers, I was all about Computer Science. Also, I wasn’t ashamed to breakdance in a shirt and tie. You see I never missed an opportunity to act the fool I couldn’t be outside of the privileged world of college students. So I was bold and a little bit arrogant. Part of that arrogance was earned from having received my third internship at Xerox where I was somewhere between left field and the cutting edge of object oriented programming and client server architecture. So while NSBE was flush with pride for having established NSBENET, a DECNET spinoff and brainchild of Mr. R.Z. White, I was rather dismayed at the lack of traffic that I had gotten accustomed to at Xerox. I mean at Xerox I could open a little icon on the STAR workstation desktop and see the servers at Shinjuku Mizuno in Tokyo. It was one of many jaw dropping moments I experienced in my long journey through information technology’s revelations.
At Xerox, like in most places, I made some critical decisions about my attitude. I was something of a cookie cutter yuppie in my aims to be a professional, breaking loose from my family traditions of service whether in the Armed Forces, civil service or academia. I was all about private enterprise, corporations, money, Wall Street - that whole edge of things in the wild, power-tie 80s. My attitude was about a precise trajectory of maintaining enough Eddie Murphy in my voice so that you know I’m black, but with perfect diction and a sprinkling of choice vocabulary. Neither was a stretch. Secondly, I never wanted to be the only black person around. That way I didn’t have to be responsible for the race in the company of the clueless. Both of these were the consequences of lessons learned in college, the most important was then and remains now: There is no such thing as black unity.
I learned this lesson in NSBE and at State. In the end it always comes down to budgets and priorities. I make this digression from the actual tech, because technology is always supposed to serve a purpose, not merely to exist for its own sake. Making that distinction has been central to my thought processes. So while NSBE and other black organizations at State might have been perceived by the 27 thousand other students and faculties as ‘the black community’ we were in actuality two dozen different organizations with our own constituencies, agendas and budgets. I was also a member of the Black Business Association and the Friends of Africa. There were several attempts initiated by various political groups on campus to see that all funds to black organizations went under a single umbrella organization. For haters, this would satisfy their desires to see the percentage of college funds be allocated on a percentage basis that was at or near the black demographic fraction of students which by my rough estimate was somewhere around 6%. Of course, having been appointed to the Student Finance Committee and representing the School of Engineering and Computer Science, I was making sure everybody coming up with funding requests were treated fairly. While my inside knowledge assured that NSBE got money for our annual Camping Conference, I shared it with whomever asked. Nevertheless, even within NSBE there were competing visions about how our generous sponsors’ money should be spent. Some gave me headaches. All made it clear that we never had one neck for one rope, although many would have it that way, not coincidentally the Black Student Union. When it changed its name to the Black Survival Union and made claims to be proven victims of past COINTELPRO infiltration and possibly current ones, I was more than a little disturbed. Their president, a seven year student, with an undeclared major was also politicking his membership, the largest of any of the black groups on campus, to be that very umbrella organization. I wasn’t having it.
Over the years, I became increasingly comfortable with black diversity, but practically doing so, and vocally doing so as a writer were not particularly comfortable at all. This is all part and parcel of the tension I felt and continue to think about when it comes to matters of race. One might think it funny that I don’t have a dual-consciousness dilemma with America, but I do with black America. So part of my story and involvement with the growth and development of black online spaces should be taken with the understanding that there is a complicated relationship between the truth and computer mediated truth, between theories of cyberspace and the reality of online life and between black Americans like me and concepts of authentic black experience. Yeah. Deep.
Meanwhile at Xerox, we were faxing and emailing like nobody’s business back in the early 80s when computers didn’t even read Compact Discs. In fact, I can remember back in the days when the Purple Rain movie just came out, that the small 3.25 inch floppies were all the hotness. Yes, I still remember double density double sided, and programs like QEMM. Anyway, our Xerox workstations ran on Ethernet LANs and we had a campus-wide network in El Segundo where I was an admin for the infamous Xerox Systems Group. Not only did we have our own internal mail, but we had mail gateways to the proto-internet which included Arpanet. In another jaw-dropping moment, I discovered bnet.
bnet was an early email distribution list. The address was bnet@SRI-AITAC-AT1.ARPA. One of the notable voices of bnet was ‘Hutch’. We all had pseudonyms back in the day, or at the very least in our signatures, we had clever nicknames. I always liked mbowen because the first three letters sound African, but I never anywhere went by ‘Mbo’. On bnet, as with every other unmoderated email distribution list (or DL), there were always flame-wars. As a flamer, I went as ‘Michael X’, yeah really inventive for a 25 year old. Nobody could last long as an actual troll, but we learned early that there was a kind of frankness in online speech that could not be sustained in polite conversation - and after all, we were all polite in the 80s. Even rock stars didn’t curse on their albums at the time.
I still have correspondence from bnet that I’ve managed to keep all these years later. I’m not a compulsive packrat, that’s my computer’s job, so I am gratified that now I can say I’ve been successful in maintaining a string of computers that have some choice words I wrote in emails to bnet most of which are appropriately embarrassing to my current self, but also quite revealing of what I was grasping to understand during those go-go 80s. Call it ‘The Beloved Community’.
Corporate Negroes & Affirmative Action
The Cosby Show & Arsenio Hall
Rap: Is it Music?
I have been briefly in touch with one or two of the folks I was in cyber-touch with in those days, and while I haven’t secured permission to excerpt their contributions, I do have their support. Since this isn’t a book and everything needn’t be chronological, I suppose we can get back to them.
There are several other people who need to be acknowledged in this, and it would be cool to see their stories engaged at length. I am probably not the biographer they deserve and there are plenty of others who remember and had personal relationships that would supersede my memories. Unfortunately, Google may not be as kind as one would hope.
I mention Walter, who was certainly the loosest cannon this bunch precisely because of that. As an American of Caribbean descent, he was on a mission back then to bring the internet to his particular island. But I didn’t meet Walt until the 90s. Whoa the 90s, that’s when it all exploded.
Carter Bing was the first person I met of these four. He ran a server called The Drum. It was connected to the proto internet in those days by some obscure means. But it was, without question, the premier site for those of us in the cybernetic diaspora in the 80s. I do want to expand upon that notion because the idea of diaspora was clearly in my mind and in many of our minds as the reason to reach out and touch other blackfolks on computer networks. We weren’t such an embattled minority as we were stringers out in the corporate and collegiate corridors of cities we weren’t born in. Many of us were professionals, but most of us were students. It was this correspondence as a certain technically sophisticated set of black Americans that set the tone of our networks. Just as the 90s arrived, while there were still Fidonet and Compuserv connections - the one killer app soon came to dominate black cyberspace and that was Usenet. At the core of the black American online presence was the granddaddy of them all: soc.culture.african.american. SCAA. Hush children and prepare yourself in reverence for the next chapter. Just to give you a taste, check out some of the discussions from 1999.
But before you hush, please make sure you ask a lot of questions here. They will trigger memories I cannot do on my own.
Wow, thanks for sharing this history, Michael! It blows my mind that so little attention has been put toward highlighting black cyberspace history, especially in today's #racism/#blackness-oriented landscape. Some questions (I'm sure more will come up):
- How do you feel that those early email list discussions compare to today's social media platforms and places like reddit in terms of productive discussion/disagreement? And how do you feel about the influence of larger audiences / stronger content moderation?
- While digging around old black cyberspace websites, I stumbled across a campaign by the web directory BlackVue called "A Million Black Dot Coms" aimed at registering 1 million black websites to counter the idea of a digital divide among black people. Seems pretty ambitious, especially in these days of social media dominance over individual websites. But I'm starting to think that maybe there was something to that digital divide, given that there are still lots of non-black designed/run websites (and in recent years, movements back toward personal websites/webrings) - yet I have to really scrape to find a lot of distinctively black 'dot coms'. On the other hand, there were clearly lots of black webrings, directories, search engines, personal sites, etc. in the 90s/early00s - now we have 'Black Twitter' (is there somewhere else?). Why do you think that the momentum for black websites/webrings, etc faded?
- On a related note, early computer geeks were notoriously stigmatized and mocked - and now Silicon Valley is the major trendsetter for most people. Similarly, there's the phenomenon of being called out for 'acting white' in certain black circles. Did you feel especially stigmatized as a 'black geek' in the early cyberspace days? And was there ever a push for there to be a 'black Steve Jobs' type celebrity geek / leader for black communities / tech?
This link fits neatly between these last two questions: https://web.archive.org/web/20000816154408/http://www.blackgeeks.net/2about.html
Why do black computer geeks seem even rarer now? (I can imagine one proposed explanation by a certain mindset being 'racism!' of some flavor)