Making Space For Black Software
From playing with computers to building networks: How the space for Black Software was made.
The following is an excerpt of Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter by Charlton D. McIlwain.
Kamal toyed with computers. But when he started his quest, he retreated to his notebooks, not his keyboard or his word processing program. He carried these fat and thick notebooks like he was a prophet, and they were his holy books. He filled their pages with random thoughts and ideas, facts, and insights from the people he talked to—revelations gained from new relationships. Many of them sparked after he converted to Islam. He recorded news he watched, commentary he read, people he observed when he traveled. He collected stuff along the way: pictures, photographs, graphic designs, and those notebooks. These artifacts that he collected became Kamal’s knowledge base.
Kamal was determined not to let the bastards around JPL grind him down. He looked for a way to lift himself—and, he hoped, his community—up. He started with what he knew. He knew his people. He knew the law, and the contracts that governed new business ventures. He was getting to know software. But he knew enough to know that African Americans were late in their appreciation of science and technology. He knew that just from looking around at the JPL ecosystem. Relatively few people who looked like him occupied or aspired to find computer and technology industry jobs.
Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter
On August 6, 1989, Kamal made his first move. He obtained the serial number 73805341, and registration number 1623958. With both in hand, Kamal Amir Masiah Al Mansour filed CPTime with the US Patent and Trademark Office, and he used his new trademark for the first time just a week later. On December 15 that year, he used it to sell his first new product. Kamal had packaged a clipart collection called CPTime. The art featured people like him: Black people, Africans, African Americans, Muslims, people of the diaspora.
Colored people’s time. We’re late! I was thinking of it more as an affirmation that this is our time. This is people of color time. Time to move forward with technology in a positive direction.
Kamal’s first step forward meant he no longer had to step foot inside JPL. He landed a new job, with GTE Government Systems Corporation. The company built telecommunications systems for the defense and aerospace industry. They located their headquarters in Needham Heights, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. Kamal’s wife, Angela, was a software developer. She had earned her degree in information systems from San Diego State University. Both eyed new jobs and new opportunities. In 1988 they departed, together, to the other side of the country.
They could have chosen to live close to GTE, but Needham Heights’s demographics left something to be desired. The chance they would ever find a Black neighbor? About as good as electing a Black president of the United States at the time. Which is to say, they had little chance in hell. Kamal and Angela chose to go where they would feel more comfortable. They decided to find a place where people would be more comfortable with them. William had made the same choice in 1980. Ken did the same after graduating MIT. Each of them made Roxbury home.
CPTime remained Kamal’s hobby. He still had to work the job that paid the bills, and his frustration continued to fester. He continued to see software building new worlds all around him. But their architects, he noticed, made little effort to make a place for him, or his people, in their worlds. Then, the day came when he witnessed on television the very thing he knew, but did not want to fully accept.
I was watching a PBS show late one night and it featured a Princeton professor. I can’t recall his name. And he was showcasing a software application called Culture. And I kept watching and looking and I saw Michelangelo, references to Rembrandt. … I kept waiting and anticipating that at some point it would make some reference to Africans, and there was none. And it convinced me that there was a professor going around pushing a software program about culture without any reference to the original culture. And it became my personal mission to develop a software program to counter that and to promote, if you will, or describe for the most part, African culture.
So, the next day after I saw the program Culture, I started a crash course in my townhouse in Roxbury. I upgraded to a Mac Plus.
Among its many features, the Mac Plus included an astounding amount of random access memory (RAM). One megabyte, upgradable to four. This gave Kamal as much processing power and speed as one could find on any personal computer at the time. The Mac Plus also came with an SCSI port. The Mac Plus allowed users to attach external devices, feed input to the computer, receive outputs from the machine, and store them on external devices. This was something useful if one wanted to, say, transform analog content to digital, to burn content onto a CD-ROM.
I spent literally forty-eight hours straight trying to make something. … Click a button, insert graphics, etc. etc. I took all the notebooks I’d been filling out with data. I started with a few pages. With Mac software, started with something that resembled software. I called it Mac Africa at the time. I kept building and building. A few months later, I had something that resembled software. The creative side was protected by copyright, trademarks. I had created packaging, which was crude at the time, but functional.
It was time for Kamal to really try to sell something. Before he had even left Los Angeles, schools in South Central’s Compton School District had already purchased CPTime for teachers to use in the classroom. But now, Kamal had designed even more. And he was beyond eager to publish it to the world.
I thought maybe I should try visiting an AfAm book club. I was just selling it by word of mouth. I also wrote what I thought a press release might look like. So I sent out a press release to a local newspaper. Next thing you know I changed the name of the software package to African Insight. I had my first clip art CPTime clip art on one.
Word spread. Kamal’s zeal to broadcast his work even further serendipitously led Kamal to a computer store across the Charles River, owned by someone who looked like him. It was a business that perfectly communicated his new brand. He arrived at Metroserve Computer Corporation, a minority business enterprise and computer consulting, hardware, and soft-ware company located at 80 Prospect Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was owned by William Murrell III.
William was always ready to shoot the breeze with any customer who came walking into the store. But he could not be more excited when Kamal showed up.
This dude came from Los Angeles. He walked right in the front door and said I’ve got something to show you. He said you got a store. I got a product. Kamal Mansour. He called his company AfroLink. And he had just completed a job with Mashari Medical College. They hired his company to create material, images about Black people’s lifestyles, to incorporate into an HIV-awareness program. So he had this whole library collection of like Afrocentric graphics. And then he converted that into a digital form and then made things out of it. So if you wanted to buy some Black church scenes, you could … some Black business scenes, you could. And that was his project. That was his first project. I called it Black Software.
Adapted from Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter by Charlton D. McIlwain. Copyright © 2019 by Charlton D. McIlwain and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Charlton McIlwain is the author of Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter (Oxford University Press, 2019). He’s also a professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University in New York, New York.