Black Is Agency
Welcome to issue #18! 🏳️🌈
Last weekend, I was reflecting with my older and much wiser brother, Ike, about an awakening that is happening across the globe. People are more curious than ever (and seeking out answers) about how we got here and what role we can play in the evolution of society. We’re proud to count Black To School as part of this conscious movement.
Black To School celebrates Black people and Black contributions around the world. The “Why?” that powers our mission is simple. “Our ancestors invented the table that the world now sits at. It’s time to not just claim our seat, but to set the agenda.”
A special thanks 🙏🏾 to the “Golden Griots'' (or top sharers) below for spreading the word about last week’s article. Please keep sharing stories of #blackcontributions and our collective history within your networks!
In this issue, we’ll:
Explore how we find and validate the data behind our stories.
Become a wizard by taking your Black history knowledge and research skills to the next level.
Collective Member: Chinwe Onyeagoro
The study of history is the review and interpretation of primary and secondary research for a specific time period. The art and science of (re)search was forever changed by Google’s search technology in 1998. Now, 94% of teachers say that their students rely on Google to conduct research, which is 3x to 5x greater than those who use books, a librarian, or an academic database.
Before Google, to research and support a hypothesis on any topic, it used to be that you would (a) visit your local library and flip through cards organized using the Dewey decimal system to find referenceable books and journals; (b) scan endless rows of bookshelves; and (c) review old newspapers and magazines using microfiche readers.
At that time, there was not a default hierarchy of sources. Each research query whether focused on “The wealthiest human” or “The invention of written language” opened up the possibility of discovering a new set of primary data or interpreting existing information in a new way. There was no absolute arbiter of fact versus opinion. No single yardstick with which to measure truth. We relied heavily on our own sense of reason and logic to process information and draw conclusions.
There are now 1.2 trillion searches a year on Google, which represents 92% of worldwide search engine market share. There is no research endeavor that doesn’t include online search. Google’s search results take into consideration a site’s PageRank and reference to target “keywords”. The PageRank algorithm is designed to sum external reference links as votes. Assuming relevance, the higher your PageRank score the more likely your sources, evidence, data, and version of reality ranks in search results.
Google has become the final word on what sources and information are to be trusted. It has taken what was a subjective, distributed method within which we each had agency in determining what matters and replaced it with a centralized, privatized, secret scoring system in which Google alone decides which perspectives, narratives, communities, and institutions get visibility. It is powerful to have a system that enables us to filter through and systematically categorize the lion’s share of recorded, human knowledge.
However, this single “gatekeeper” model is prone to confirmation bias, which often leads to a de facto form of censorship. This dynamic can be clearly seen when conducting online searches on any topic related to civilization, innovation, advancement, success, and excellence. There is a conspicuous absence of any reference to Africa and the African Diaspora’s role and contributions in top results.
People generally tend to seek out information that confirms their view of the world and Google’s algorithm amplifies this behavior. When exploring any topic related to human progress whether it be on ancient communication systems, governance models, and philosophy or business, trade, and innovation, sites that focus on the role of Greek and Western civilization tend to rank highest in search results.
These sites align with status quo beliefs by reinforcing existing notions about the superior role of Europeans in society. Thus, they get more reference links from important news media, government, and educational sites, have a higher PageRank, and as a result get access to a broader audience.
And those sources that accurately credit Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, and other Black communities for contributions throughout human existence are typically buried far beyond page one in Google search results, which generally have less than 2.5% the visibility. Together, online search as the default research method and the circular referential nature of search results suppress lesser known, non-Eurocentric narratives.
What you’re left with in this recursive search world is a society in which those limited few who already understand the full scope of Black history, know exactly where to look in the historical record for evidence to support the broader narrative about our impact on humanity. And as Anurag Acharya, the inventor of Google Scholar put it, those without the knowledge are “great minds [that] are deprived of inspiration, and the wonderful works that don’t have the impact they would have because of their limited distribution.”
To ensure that the evidence of our shared story doesn’t become a permanent casualty in the race for rankings, it’s critical that we find ways to intentionally aggregate, differentiate, and showcase credible sources and data about Africa and the African Diaspora much like Google has done for other important areas of research and knowledge, including scholarly literature, news, trends, books, patents, language, arts and culture, and more.
A method to our research.
Our focus at Black To School is about telling the story of human progress and the central role that Africa and the African Diaspora play in it. Our starting position is that the evidence of our contributions is everywhere across time and place. Our research represents vetted primary and secondary data in support of this truth.
Below is an explanation of what we research; where we find source material; how we assess credibility; and when we share this data in each newsletter:
What do we research?
Once we choose a theme for the newsletter like analytics, written language, or innovation and align on the story angle, we segment our target research into six objectives: (1) Establish a Baseline, (2) Introduce the Hook, (3) Define the Scope, (4) Share the Traction, (5) Quantify and Qualify the Impact, and (6) Promote Engagement.
See below a description of the key questions for each research objective:
Establish a Baseline - How is this industry/field defined? What’s the standard of success? Who are the trusted authorities?
Introduce the Hook - Has anything significantly changed? What are the recent trends? Are there debates or unfinished conversations related to the role of Africa and the African Diaspora?
Define the Scope - How big is the current opportunity? What’s the potential reach and upside?
Share the Traction - What are the past and present examples of Black excellence and contributions in this area? Where can we show critical mass? What is the golden thread that runs through each of these stories?
Quantify and Qualify the Impact - How have these contributions advanced the field and influenced other generations and geographies? With this knowledge, what does the future hold?
PromoteEngagement - To better understand the role Africa and the African Diaspora play, where might we benefit from a deeper study of the field/industry? What are fun facts and ways to interact with this information for kids and adults? Where and with whom can we pursue our personal and/or professional interests in this area?
Where do we find source material?
Once we have identified the specific research questions for the newsletter issue, we go hunting for answers and supporting data by reviewing “go to” trusted sources and identifying new references.
Our “go to” experts have either (a) demonstrated market share or mind share in the industry/field, (b) have done extensive research and analysis on topics related to Africa and the African Diaspora, or (c) both.
Depending on the topic, our group (a) sources vary significantly. Experts in a particular industry/field typically include:
Independent Experts (Historians, Academics, Activists, Authors)
Media Publications (BBC, CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time, NPR, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Forbes, Fortune, PBS, Local News Media, Industry News Magazines)
For group (b), the references remain relatively constant. They have a strong track record of primary and secondary research on Black stories across a broad range of topics. They include organizations like The Africa Report, UNESCO Digital Library, BlackPast, Quartz Africa, African Journals Online, National Archives (Black History), Independent Voices, University African & African American Studies Departments/Centers, Library Research Archives/Databases of African & African American Studies, History Makers, HomeTeam History, Black Excellence & Abundance, NewAfrica, Black Enterprise.
How do we assess credibility?
Our process for vetting the research is simple. We ensure that we are drawing our research from authoritative sources to begin with (see example list above). We check the data whether it be archaeological artifacts, primary source accounts, or secondary research findings with multiple trusted sources. We also seek to understand the different ways in which the information has been interpreted and where there is broad consensus on conclusions.
The strength or weakness of any one source material will not make or break our overall argument. It is the concentration and logical connections between a variety of facts and figures that truly tells the story. If there is significant debate among experts as to what the data actually is and what it represents, we typically do not use it as evidence. If there is uncertainty about the when, the where, or the who that doesn’t undermine the underlying point that is being made, we share and qualify the information to make clear where there are still open questions.
As an example, in our issue about the first calculator, we shared information about the Lebombo bone which is broadly accepted to be invented by Africans and was the first manmade mathematical tool. However, we also noted that there is open debate as to exactly who used it and how it was used. Our issue on the first controlled chemical reaction is another clear example of the African Diaspora’s contribution even though the exact time period when humans ignited the first fire is still in question.
When do we share this data?
Our goal with Black To School is to tell a data driven story of the contributions of Africa and the African Diaspora. In order to do that, we need to ensure lesser known information that is required to fully understand the topic and our role is attributed and accessible. The best time to share the research behind the issue is in context. We hyperlink reference materials inline within the body of the issue rather than including a bibliography at the end.
While reading the piece, there is an option to drill down and immediately address any questions or make a mental note to return to a specific claim. The benefit of this approach is that readers know exactly where to look in order to learn more. The limitation is that only one reference link of the many sources used to validate the information can be made available with this approach.
Despite the false claims about the absence of pre-colonial African civilization and the tendency for mainstream media and Hollywood to disproportionately focus on negative stories about Black people, we know and now you know that the data is available to truly educate ourselves about the full story of human existence.
Data is a powerful tool. It is what we use to rewrite our narrative; showcase our superpowers; and continue helping society learn and grow. At Black To School, we go beyond the quick search results, apply a global lens, and consult a variety of trusted sources to tell the story of Africa and the African Diaspora’s contributions in the world. Black history is human history; our record speaks for itself.
🛠️ The Black To School Toolkit
Now What? Dig Deeper with Friends, Family, and Others.
Want to learn more about Black studies? Click here for an overview and a summary of how this field has evolved overtime. Want more? Click here to read about the multiracial movement that founded Black Studies in America.
Curious about how Black history is taught in K-12 schools? Here’s a review of what your kids are learning on the subject of Black history. What can be done? Read a case study about a school district that redesigned their Black history courses to tell the full story from an African Diaspora point of view.
Want to take your knowledge to the next level? Register yourself or sponsor a local teacher to attend the annual Teaching Black History Conference hosted by the Carter Center for K-12 History Education.
⌛ The Black To School Timeline
Black History is Human History; Our Record Speaks For Itself.
Last week, we shared an overview of our Editorial Process The Point of View: Reframing the Conversation, understanding and curating our story is one of the most powerful ways that we exercise our agency.
This week, we revealed our Research Methods. The Practice: Showcasing the Evidence, finding and vetting the data and sources is all about going deep and identifying patterns with trusted sources.
Next week, we showcase our Design Philosophy. The Brand: The Style Guide, there is intention and Black creative talent embedded in every aspect of our layout and appearance.
About This Week’s Contributor
My name is Chinwe Onyeagoro. I have two toddlers under the age of 5 and I’m the CEO & Co-Founder of a tech company called PocketSuite.io. I know firsthand how difficult it can be for parents to carry the full weight of educating their kids about the wide and wonderful world.
I was really inspired when I learned about the history of Saturday Schools! If you missed “The Back Story” article, I encourage you to watch this talk by rapper, poet, and journalist, Akala, who himself is one of the most amazing examples of the power of the Saturday School model.
I see the Black To School newsletter as a modern day virtual Saturday School, focused on telling the story of Africans and the African Diaspora that we can all learn, share, and draw strength from with our kids, family, friends, and network.