At the Borders of Flesh: A Secret History of Race and Technology Race and Robots: A New Curiosity Shop?

On 13th October, 2016 Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR) presented speaker Louis Chude-Sokei from the University of Washington, Seattle to talk on a ‘secret history of race and technology.’ This talk was the first of the series of talks organised by the BISR on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’ to be held once in each term. That evening with a full house of listeners Louis was quick to engage his audience by opening with the following question—‘how has the knowledge and understanding of technology, ranging from nineteenth century industrialisation to contemporary Artificial Intelligence, been long intertwined with race, and how have we deployed and made sense of that race, particularly in the case of blacks and Africans, in a world made by slavery and colonialism?’

As an engaging speaker, Louis was prompt to break down this rather long and apparently arduous question into smaller ones accompanied by several images. But he did start with a story, the story of one of the many forgotten African slaves—Joice Heth. In fact, so central was the story of Joice that Louis remarked—‘if this is the only name that you take away from this talk, I’d be happy!’

The Stories of Joice Heth


Joice Heth was an African-American slave born in 1756, Madagascar and became famous for being the living example of human immortality. She was claimed to be 161 years old and was widely promoted and toured by a professional American showman and owner of a circus company, P.T Burnam. In fact, she was also claimed to be the former caregiver of George Washington. But her notorious owner had some more plans of making fortune against Joice’s relentless exhibition. He later ‘revealed’ that this is a hoax and Joice is after all a machine. This doubled, perhaps tripled Joice’s visitors and Barnum became richer than he imagined. So popular were both the lies that when she actually did die Barnum charged people for witnessing her autopsy in a New York bar.

The question for Louis is why? Why did Joice as a machine become more credible and accessible to people than Joice as a 161 year old human being? Why did the former hoax sell more than the latter?

Slave—the human machine


The Turk

Immediately after the success of further promoting Joice as a machine, she was placed beside another famous automaton of the time to make the hoax more credible— the Turk. The hoax was complete, as it were. Joice had easily entered people’s consciousness as a machine, and this was possible because being a slave she was never a fully human legally. She was that figure occupying the liminal space of white people’s imagination, existing somewhere between person and property. Now enters a third term—‘machine’—that Louis introduces to complicate the image of the slave and the history of technology. Joice was a construct of industry, an American automaton “masked in dark flesh and withered femininity of a far more intimate and local stereotype.”

Post Slavery—Robot replacing Automaton

Of course the market for the likes of Joice Heth needed to be updated after the Civil War and the end of slavery in America. In the real world, slaves have revolted against their masters and won. Writer Mary Shelley, herself an abolitionist, was known to have stopped eating sugar in solidarity with the slaves’ uprising in the plantations of Haiti. Furthermore, she even wrote a whole book on the theme, Frankenstein, where the plot revolves around a ‘monster’ rising against his own master for his liberation, if not of humanity. Besides technology, another related field reflected this new anxiety of man-made monsters revolting against their own masters—the literary genre of the science fiction. In fact, the first book in the history of science fiction was a British text that took the transatlantic slave trade as its plot.

The new ‘safe’ Robot


Rastus Robot

In 1930 a famous American manufacturing company, Westinghouse used the term ‘robot’ to manufacture and sell ‘safe’ mechanical Negros— Rastus Robot—dressed in a stereotypical, early twentieth century sharecropper’s attire. According to the official sales description published in the New York Times, ‘this robot could rise, sweep the floor, move hands, all at the master’s request…He has the powers of speech!’ And all of these were happening in as late as 1930 and Rastus is one of the earliest attempts at racializing (even sexualising) machines.

Updating the conversation between race and technology in the 21st century: BINA48



‘Breakthrough Intelligence Neural Architecture 48’— Bina48, a humanoid robot created in 2007, is the latest American attempt at Artificial Intelligence. Louis remarks that she is the great, great granddaughter of Joice Heth as she continues to be the product of that long interaction between technology and black people. This latest invention complicated the borders between flesh and fabrication so much that the question became urgent than ever before—do machines have souls? By way of connecting and drawing parallels between race and technology, Louis reminds his audience that this same question was once asked about the slaves—did they have souls?

Race, technology and the emergence of science fiction as a genre

In a sweeping turn of genres, Louis takes all these material evidence on machines and robots onto the literary genre of science fiction that emerged about the same time as robotics as a field of human expertise in America. One of the earliest texts on robotics, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) authored by the American mathematics and cybernetics experts, Norbert Weiner, covered a rather ‘absurd’ topic—how to ethically treat machines! The question was absurd because we really do not spend much time on how to ethically treat our car or the microwave. But for Weiner it was. Why? So that they don’t rise in revolt, like the former slaves! For him, race and black people provided the ethics for treating machines well. Machines and robots were racialised, now explicitly, and this same concern was reflected in one of the most focussed American science fiction writers of the period—Isaac Asimov, a biotechnologist by profession. And both these writers were talking about ethics of treating humanoid machines even before the first robot has been created in America.

A secret history?

From the talk it did seem that the interconnections between race, technology and science fiction as a literary genre have indeed been a clandestine affair. For the historical and material evidence used by Louis to account for a history of the science fiction were not only new to the packed audience but also his skill of establishing connections among such diverse sources across various fields of study was greatly persuasive. However, given the constraints of time and the enormous scale of his work, the part on science fiction got less attention, irregularly making its way in between his longer narratives on race and technology. Perhaps that’s another talk; perhaps we need to read his book  The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics (2015) for that answer.

Listen to the Podcast

This post is contributed by  Senjuti Chakraborti a 3rd year PhD student jointly supervised by the School of Arts and the School of Law. 

To hear about BISR’s other events on the theme of ‘Crossing Borders’ Join our mailing list or follow us on Twitter: @bbkinstitutes


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