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Edward Jones-Imhotep, University of Toronto

Thu May 4th 2023, 4:30 - 6:59pm
History Room 307

The Black Androids: History and the Technological Underground

This talk explores Black technological experience in 19th and early 20th century America through a history of the "black androids" — automata in the form of black humans. From the 18th century onwards, hundreds of black androids were produced, purchased, and displayed across four continents. In the United States, these machines formed part of a culture of minstrelsy concentrated along Broadway Street in New York City. Using the technologies of the time — steam, mechanics, electricity — these American androids portrayed Black people in pastoral, leisurely, and non-technological roles, supporting the myth of Black technological disingenuity. The androids’ surface, however, masked how those same technologies featured centrally in the lives, imaginations, and self-identities of Black New Yorkers. The talk examines that duality: how the technologies that drove the androids' racist depictions also figured crucially in Black technological experiences, agency, and selfhood in 19th and early 20th century New York. From 19th-century steam-men and railway sabotage plots, to electrical workers and the Harlem Renaissance, the talk asks what a descent into the technological undergrounds might reveal about race and machines, about the challenges of history, and about the role of Black experiences in challenging our conceptions of technology and pointing us towards new approaches.