Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

Backstory: How Does a Book Really Happen?

Many people believe that a lot of forethought goes into writing a book. Not so with THINK BLACK. This book has much more humble, mundane, even surprising origins. With THINK BLACK about to be published next week, I got to thinking about how this book really begin; about the backstory to THINK BLACK.

For months, Susan, a writer friend and me, had been meeting for an hour or so regularly over coffee to discuss the projects we were working on. About two years ago, we both came to a place where our daily jobs had taken a downturn. Susan, who ordinarily works as a travel writer, did not have much work coming her way. My small software company had just lost a huge project in Turkey, which we'd been approved for until last-minute politics took it away.

So, there we were in a coffee shop in Bellingham, Washington, agonizing over what to do next. Susan told me about some scripts she had laying around that she ought to revisit and rewrite. I told her I had this idea for a television series set in the 1950s about a Black man working on early computers at IBM. Kind of like "Mad Men," but with a Black lead. I called the series "Color-Coded." We both agreed that we should work on those scripts, then share them with each other for critiques and revisions.

I spent a few months working on the script for a pilot episode of "Color-Coded," which was loosely based around my father's life. I rounded out the script with a treatment for a 10-episode TV series of the same name. When I showed the script to my agent, he said it reminded him of the film "Hidden Figures," which was intentional on my part. But he also told me he couldn't sell it if there wasn't a real book behind it. Write the book. Maybe someone will take the film idea seriously.

To get a non-fiction book published by a major New York house, you first have to write a proposal: several pages about why you're the person to write this book, and about how you'll market it; about fifty pages of sample writing from the book; the rest of the book is outlined. I committed to writing a book proposal for "Color-Coded," which took me another three or four months. My agent kept asking me why was I pushing so hard, writing so fast. I had a sense that this book needed to hit prior to the 2020 elections, and that gave me little time.

We started shopping Color-Coded in February of 2018. By March 2018, a handful of publishers had expressed interest in the proposal, Tracy Sherrod at Amistad one of them. I was thrilled to learn of Tracy's interest, she's a Black woman who is undoubtedly at the top of the ranks of African American editors at major publishing houses. Tracy runs Amistad Press, a division of HarperCollins. By the end of March 2018, we had a deal with Tracy.

I met with Tracy in June of 2018 and she asked me two questions that would change the trajectory of the book. Up until this point I thought I knew the Color-Coded story: A Branch Rickey-Jackie Robinson saga about my father breaking the color line in the high-tech industry with Thomas J. Watson, Sr. as Branch Rickey and my father, John Stanley Ford, as Jackie Robinson. I thought it would be easy to write. But over lunch, Tracy asked me, "Who was Watson? Why did he hire your father? We have to know that. The readers have to know." I realized that I needed to know as well.

I'd already written about one-third of the Color-Coded when I met Tracy for lunch. Then I started researching Thomas J. Watson, Sr. and the history of IBM. It opened a Pandora's Box of technology and human rights abuse, as I realized that the company my father and me worked for was deeply involved in supporting eugenics, the Holocaust, apartheid, and racial profiling. But I also realized I could not write a book about IBM's involvement in human rights abuses, particularly with regard to the Holocaust, because that book had already been written by Edwin Black. I needed to tell this story from the perspective of a son pondering how and why the head of a technology company chose to hire his father as their first Black software engineer in the 1940s.

This was a particularly hard section of the book to write. In reading about IBM's involvement in eugenics, the Holocaust, and apartheid, I found myself at times crying or dry-heaving in utter disgust. But this research also propelled me to work long hours on the book, to get it done because I felt the book's message was so relevant to the state of high-technology and race relations today. I realized that many of the issues my father dealt with, many of the activities IBM was involved in, are still alive and active today.

I delivered a finished manuscript for Color-Coded to Tracy in October 2018, and I flew to New York City to meet her at the end of that month. She was thrilled to have the manuscript so early, and also a little stunned. She told me that I'd created quite a stir at HarperCollins, but reassured me that it was all good. The book would be published in the fall of 2019, six months earlier then planned. But, Tracy, said over lunch, "I'm not thrilled with the title. We have to come up with something better."

"I'm pretty good at titles," I said, "But not on-demand. I need some time to mull over another."

"Okay," Tracy said.

Twenty minutes later, as we walked out of the restaurant, I turned to her and blurted out, "Think Black."

She paused for a moment, then cocked her finger my way. "That's it!"

And that settled the matter.

Under Tracy's deft guidance, the manuscript for THINK BLACK underwent several months of revisions by HarperCollins' editors, and review by HarperCollins' legal department. By March 2019, a year after we had a deal, we had advance review copies (ARCs) to send out for publicity and marketing purposes.

What an incredible journey it's been working on this book; a journey filled with emotional highs and lows; a journey unearthing information about my father and about IBM that I had no sense of before I began; and, a journey also revealing important truths about me. And still, I keep learning, even after the book's been finalized and printed. Several weeks ago, I realized that the picture of my father and his IBM colleagues, which we included in the book, held a story of its own; a story I had not recognized until I looked at that picture closely. On that basis, I decided to begin my book talks by showing and talking about that picture.

Like a painter, who in a mad fit of creativity, strokes with brushes non-stop, all-day, to create a work, writing this book seemed to happen at lightning speed! And, like that painter, with no idea of how that painting would turn out, I can't say that I planned to write THINK BLACK but I can say I'm very grateful that I did. 


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Thursday, 17 October 2019