America's Refusal to Acknowledge the Scientific Contributions of Black and Indigenous Scientists

America’s Dark History: The Refusal to Acknowledge the Scientific Contributions of Black and Indigenous people in Academia and Literature in Scientific Fields

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, it occurred to me that there are very few Black environmentalists’ viewpoints included in academia conversation or taught within classrooms. We often hear of Jane Goodall, Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson, Al Gore, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Von Humboldt and, even in recent years, Greta Thunberg. While these individuals have contributed immensely to environmental conservation, evolutionary knowledge and the anthropogenic issuing plaguing our planet, one is left to wonder where is the diversity in the distribution of credit of this vital information, research and discoveries? Are all the great scientists Caucasian men and women? Where are the Black environmentalists like me?

Understanding and addressing the lack of diversity in the distribution of credit within the natural sciences would require researchers, professors, politicians…etc. to address their own biased views against Black scientists and America’s racist history of silencing Black voices within academia. For centuries, long after the Atlantic slave trade, Black folks weren’t allowed to read, write or contribute to scientific endeavors legally. However, this barrier did little to actually keep enslaved individuals from contributing immensely to the scientific and engineering fields. Shontavia Johnson, a lawyer and professor of Intellectual Property Law at Drake University, wrote a heart-wrenching piece addressing the history of America’s exploitation of enslaved individuals. Slaves weren’t considered citizens and, although the U.S. patent law was created with “color-blind language” to encourage universal craftivism, Blacks were still denied patents for their inventions. One such example mentioned by Johnson is the cotton scraper invented by a slave only known as Ned. Because Ned was born into slavery, he was not legally allowed to patent his invention and his owner, Oscar Stewart, would later take credit for the invention and earn a massive amount of money once distribution of the tool began.

Within the field of environmental science (specifically agricultural advancements), I often hear about Thomas Jefferson, Rachel Carson, Henry A. Wallace and George Harrison Shull, but we are rarely taught about America’s original environmentalists: The Indigenous people. Many people, even today, would deny that Indigenous people were environmentalists though their knowledge of fauna and flora has been immeasurable in its value to scientific exploration and advancement. Naomi Schaefer Riley, a writer for the NY post, published an article in 2015 scrutinizing First lady Michelle Obama for crediting Indigenous people for their contributions to successful harvesting practices and agricultural knowledge that was invaluable to colonizers. According to an article written by Thomas R. Wessel, “Indian agriculture fed the first colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth and largely accounted for their survival. Indian farming techniques sustained the early settlements and provided the United States and a good portion of the world with its most prolific feed grain.” It is obvious that Riley’s misunderstanding (or perhaps a refusal to understand) of what an “environmentalist” is has resulted in a naïve paradigm that can be observed in every faucet of scientific exploration. In a noted effort to discredit Indigenous people, Riley maundered on about how early Indigenous people “hunted without regard to waste” or destroyed “everything in their path”. She continuously backed her argument by quoting the work of the historian Larry Schweikart’s “Buffaloed: The Myth and Reality of Bison in America”. She used the work of this single individual to then discredit a decade’s worth of work, research and history made by numerous historians and scientists. She then ended her rant by noting that “treating Indians with dignity doesn’t mean pretending they had special powers for predicting global warming.” No Riley, treating Indigenous people with dignity begins with acknowledging their contribution to the advancement of agricultural and environmental practices that have contributed to the success of the United States as a country, something you (and many other Americans) are incapable of doing.

Black and Indigenous people are often removed from history and their contributions are often overlooked and ignored in academia while their inventions/discoveries are exploited and credit diverted solely to Caucasian scientists. I have been a student all of my life and I have never been required to read the works of Winona LaDuke, Harriet A. Washington, Laura Penniman and Majora Carter. I have always had to learn about Black scientists outside of the classroom because their contributions to the advancement of sciences, medicine and technology were never taught (besides during Black History Month in elementary school). Black and Indigenous people are often excluded from environmental conversations and conversation efforts, even within the environmental justice category in which the main focus is minority individuals, but they are rarely given the spotlights within these controversial topics. For example a quick google search of "Environmental Justice" textbooks accentuates how Black and Indigenous authors are overlooked in this particular subcategory, though the foundation of environmental justice is built on the fact that Black and Indigenous communities were being adversely affected by environmental laws, regulations and policies and that they had no real voice in the public health sector. However, this google search reveals that the first 15 books listed in this subcategory are written by Caucasian men and women. There are very few Black and Indigenous authors listed, though there are thousands of available texts and publications by Black and Indigenous writers and scientists. A quick search through required reading material for several environmental classes at the University of North Texas shows the same pattern of omittance of Black and Indigenous authors.

It is evident that there is not a lack of published material written by Black and Indigenous writers, but a lack of willingness to share the spotlight, give credit and acknowledge the contributions made by Black and Indigenous scientists and naturalists. Representation in all fields is important, including the sciences. I challenge teachers and professors to heavily implement the works, writings and contributions of black and indigenous scientists into their lesson plans, lectures and scientific studies. I also challenge Caucasian scientists to acknowledge and combat their own biases within the field and to encourage inclusivity and diversity in all faucets of scientific exploration and advancement.

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