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U of T researchers investigate the hidden history of 'Black androids'

Clockwise from top left: Edward Jones-Imhotep, Sarai Rudder, Emily Grenon and Alexandar Offord are exploring the histories of racialized mechanical humans created between the mid-18th and late 20th centuries.

It began as a series of isolated references – the term would appear in a historical article here, a book there. Edward Jones-Imhotep soon began noticing references to “Black androids” everywhere.

They were historically called “automata," automatic machines that, in this case, replicated the actions of human beings.

One example is an 1868 patented design of a mechanical person – a racist depiction of a Black man – wearing a top hat, smoking a pipe and pulling a cart. 

“These were references to real physical objects – not science fiction but actual machines that had been built in the form of Black humans,” says Jones-Imhotep, associate professor and director of the Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology at the Faculty of Arts & Science.

“The androids were part of the racist ideologies of their time. They portrayed Black people in pastoral, leisurely and non-technological roles. But it didn't seem that anybody had looked into what role they might have played in creating racial mythologies – particularly one of the most prominent and harmful mythologies: the idea that technology is opposed to Blackness.”

To help him explore this history, Jones-Imhotep turned to the Jackman Scholars-in-Residence program, a four-week research fellowship for upper-year undergrads in the humanities. In 2017, a year after its launch, the program received 1,000 applications for 50 openings, highlighting the need for additional research opportunities – a call answered by a $1-million gift from Bader Philanthropies, Inc. in 2018.  

Jones-Imhotep assembled a team of eight research assistants to undertake the Black Androids project. Their initial goal was to identify and document racialized automata created between the mid-18th and late 20th centuries.

In the first two weeks alone, they discovered more than 100 androids. There are now around 150 androids in the team’s database, which they plan to continue building and refining.

“The most surprising part has been the sheer number of discoveries we have made. It is almost as though we have uncovered a hidden universe that exposes the deep racial roots of societies worldwide,” says Sarai Rudder, a research assistant and third-year undergraduate at Trinity College who is majoring in peace, conflict and justice, with minors in sociology and critical studies in equity and solidarity.

As their research evolved, the team realized that the androids were part of another hidden history.

“We discovered that, if we looked at the machinery beneath the androids’ surface, the same technologies that physically drove their racist depictions were, in other contexts, part of the rich technological experiences of Black peoples at the time – that’s what we want to explore,” Jones-Imhotep explains.

Their current investigation, which forms the basis of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant proposal, focuses on New York City between 1830 and 1930 and has two main goals.

“The idea is to first create a digital historical map of the androids’ movements, their histories and the interconnections they have with the social and technological development of New York City over the course of that century,” says Jones-Imhotep. “We then use the androids’ technology as a portal to try to understand the lived technological experiences of Black New Yorkers, and how those experiences shatter the racist depictions of the androids themselves.”

New York is the focus of the project because many of the androids were manufactured and displayed there during this period. But the city’s significance runs deeper.

“There is a kind of cultural spectacle in New York during the late 19th century that surrounds the androids, linking them to the racist vaudeville and minstrel theatre happening at the time,” Jones-Imhotep says. “The androids play a very important part in the construction of race within New York City.”

The team’s interest in New York also stems from a gap in existing scholarship about its history. Researchers have studied the technological development of the city, on one hand, and the history of Black people in New York, “but nobody has written about these two threads as if they’re part of the same history,” he says.

Working together to explore this largely unresearched area has been a meaningful part of the experience for the team.

“The collaborative, creative nature of the work makes every new discovery resonant with possibilities. It’s like discovering a parallel dimension,” says Alexander Offord, a research assistant who earned his honours bachelor of arts in the history and philosophy of science earlier this year as a member of Woodsworth College. “I remain constantly enthralled by how wonderful and strange our discoveries are – from criminal geniuses and haunted dolls to secret societies and underground resistances.”

“Professor Jones-Imhotep encouraged us to follow whatever paths our research took us on. Each of us has added pieces to the whole that we never could have anticipated,” says Emily Grenon, a research assistant and fourth-year undergraduate studying history and material culture as a member of Victoria College. “It’s been a wonderful experience to be part of a project that covers something totally new, and to work with such brilliant people while doing it.”

The team plans to publish their findings widely, including in scholarly articles, conference papers, a book and even a graphic novel to share their research with a broader audience.

“The point of the graphic novel is to highlight this hidden history of Black technological life,” says Jones-Imhotep. “The consequences of this are really important because the myth that sees technology as opposed to Blackness is partly created in the moment we’re investigating. It’s one of the most pernicious, damaging myths we have — and it persists to this day.

“It denies educational opportunities for Black peoples. It justifies exclusion. It supports technologies that target and surveil African-descended peoples. That’s what makes this investigation so critical and urgent. We are working to rewrite the histories of Blackness and technology. By changing those histories, we hope to change the future.”

Adds Rudder: “When we think of technology, it is often names like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Steve Jobs that come to mind. It almost feels as though Black people and other people of colour are missing from historical narratives surrounding technological advancement.”

Jones-Imhotep says the Black Androids project highlights the histories of underrepresented groups and supports the research of Black scholars at U of T.

The Black Research Network that was recently launched here at the University of Toronto aims to support and nurture a network of Black researchers and the amazing research they're doing,” he says. “That's crucial given the historical experiences and lack of support Black scholars have had at universities worldwide.

“One of the things this project hopes to demonstrate is the remarkable research that’s possible with focused resources and with the right support.”