Europeans had prowled the Mediterranean for 2,000 years, sailing from Greece to Rome, from Rome to Egypt, from Spain to Morocco, and on hundreds of other routes, before any systematic sailing craft or technique was developed. In the 1400s the Portuguese prince who came to be known as Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) dispatched a series of voyages to make maps and chart data; by the mid-1440s the Portuguese, in search of new, unexploited trade routes, had reached Cape Verde and the Senegal River.
As they worked their way down the northwestern African coast, the Portuguese came up against what seemed at first an insurmountable problem: strong winds and currents from the north meant that a ship returning to Lisbon would have to travel long distances against the wind. Enter the caravel, with its three masts and large sails -- a perfectly designed solution to the problem, and the machine that allowed Portugal to rule the waves from West Africa to India for a hundred years.
The Atlantic slave trade was one of the industries that emerged from this new capability. Western technology was involved with the rise of black slavery in other ways as well: Arab and African slave traders exchanged their human chattels for textiles, metals, and firearms, all products of Western technological wizardry, and those same slavers used guns, vastly superior to African weapons of the time, in wars of conquest against those tribes whose members they wished to capture.
The slave wars and trade were only the first of many encounters with Western technology to prove disastrous for people of African descent. In the United States, as in South America and the Caribbean, the slaves were themselves the technology that allowed Europeans to master the wilderness. Then, in 1793, as the efficiency of the slave economy on cotton plantations (where slaves cost more to maintain than they could generate in profits) was being questioned in some quarters, Eli Whitney, of Connecticut, invented a simple gin that allowed harvested cotton to be picked clean of seeds -- an essential step before milling -- on a far greater scale than had previously been possible.
Suddenly rendered cost-efficient, cotton farming became a way to get rich quick. Thousands of black Africans were imported to do the work; in Mississippi alone the number of slaves increased from 498 in 1784 to 195,211 by 1840. Here were the roots of the millions of African-Americans who would come to populate the industrial Midwest, from Kansas City to Chicago to Pittsburgh to Buffalo. Those blacks, in the great migrations following the world wars, would compose the urban proletariat that is both pouring forth black success stories and struggling with social pathologies so difficult as to seem unsolvable.
The largest northward migration of blacks took place during and after the Second World War. This exodus was largely a result of the invention of the mechanical cotton picker, which enabled three or four workers to perform a task that on some farms had required hundreds if not thousands of hands. Displaced by machinery and no longer needed in the underdeveloped American South, where they had been brought solely to do this kind of work, they went north to the industrial cities, where they encountered another kind of technology -- the great factories of mass production. It was a violent shift for many whose families had known only agriculture for hundreds of years. And the Irish, Slavic, German, and Italian immigrants who were already there, felt they'd done their time, and were ready to move up resented the new competition that drove down wages. Many of the most vicious and enduring stereotypes about blacks were born of this resentment.
When those northern factories began closing and moving offshore, owing to the information and communications revolutions of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, blacks were left behind in the inner cities of the Rust Belt, suffering from the metamorphosis of our society into a series of suburban megalopolises. Improvements in communications and transportation have struck the further blow of rendering the city irrelevant as a business and economic center, allowing mainstream money to be pulled out. The resulting isolation and deprivation, most eloquently outlined in the theories of the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, account for the desolate urban landscapes we now see in parts of Detroit, Chicago, and Gary, Indiana.
Technology in and of itself is not at fault; it's much too simple to say that gunpowder or agricultural machinery or fiber optics has been the enemy of an entire group of people. A certain machine is put to work in a certain way -- the purpose for which it was designed. The people who design the machines are not intent on unleashing chaos; they are usually trying to accomplish a task more quickly, cleanly, or cheaply, following the imperative of innovation and efficiency that has ruled Western civilization since the Renaissance.
THE TOOLS' DANCE