What Color is My World?

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What Color is My World? Page 1

by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  “You’ve got to use your imagination,” Mama encouraged us.

  That’s what adults always say when something looks really awful but they want you to say something nice anyway.

  Mama smiled weakly and waited for us to say something nice.

  And waited.

  More waiting.

  Finally, my twin sister, Ella, shook her head. “My imagination must be low on batteries, because all I can see is some creepy old house out of some horror movie.”

  “Thank you, Ella.” Mama frowned. Then she turned to me. “What do you think, Herbie?”

  “It’s great, Mama. Very, uh, roomy.”

  Ella stood behind Mama and made an exaggerated kissing face at me. But the truth was, I kind of liked the old place. I stomped my foot on the wooden porch. “Solid,” I said, and Mama smiled.

  “Herrrrrbieeee,” Ella sang, “I am the Ghost of Losers Past. We welcome you to our ranks.”

  Mama ignored Ella and gestured at the house. “It’s got three bedrooms upstairs, so you’ll each have your own room. That’ll be a nice change, huh?”

  Ella actually perked up at that. “I won’t have to smell his skanky socks after basketball practice.”

  “And I won’t have to listen to your dumb phone calls.”

  “Knock, knock,” a voice said from behind us.

  Mama turned and smiled. “Roger! You’re early!”

  “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, ma’am.”

  “That’s the truth,” Mama said. “You have the list of what I need to pick up?”

  “Right here.” He pulled out a long, handwritten list from the top pocket of his bib overalls and handed it to Mama.

  “Kids, this is Mr. Mital. He’s a handyman Dad and I met at church.”

  “Roger Edward Mital,” he said, offering his hand. We shook it and told him our names. His hand was rough and callused. Like Dad’s. Even though Dad worked as an executive in a bank with a big metal desk and an assistant and wore suits and ties and shiny shoes, he still liked to work with his hands on weekends.

  “You two will help Mr. Mital while I go get more supplies.” She whistled at the list. “A lot of supplies.”

  “It’ll all be worth it,” Mr. Mital said. “You’ll see.”

  Mom nodded, still staring at the long list. “Walk me to the car,” she told Ella and me.

  When we got to the car, she said, “You do what Mr. Mital says, you hear me? We are lucky to have him.”

  Ella patted Mama’s shoulder. “Relax, Mama.”

  Mama locked eyes with Ella. “I mean it, girl.”

  When Mama’s car was out of sight, we turned toward the house and there was Mr. Mital.

  “I take it you two are less than thrilled with your new home.” Mr. Mital had a well-worn hammer in the loop of his overalls. He smelled like the peppermint tea Mama always drinks when she gets home from work. She’s a middle-school principal (not at the school Ella and I go to, thank goodness!).

  “We were hoping for something . . . newer,” Ella said. “Like the Covent Gardens homes they’re building over on Draper Street. They have a community pool.”

  “And a hot tub,” I added. “And tennis courts.”

  “New isn’t necessarily better,” Mr. Mital said. “If you look closely at this place, you’ll see some exquisite craftsmanship.” We walked into the house.

  “But you won’t see a pool,” Ella said.

  Mr. Mital laughed. “Nope. But you’ll see something else.”


  “History. Many people worked across the centuries to make a house like this. This house is the culmination of all human progress.”

  “Sounds crowded,” Ella said with a snort.

  “Sounds like a museum,” I said.

  “Oh, it is.” Mr. Mital nodded. “A museum is a celebration of achievement. Your parents’ achievement in providing a home for their family, but also a celebration of the history of humankind, the history of America, and the history of African Americans.”

  Ella laughed. “African Americans? Unless this was a station on the Underground Railroad, I don’t see any African-American history.” She cupped her hands and shouted up the stairs, “Dr. King, are you up there watching MTV with Harriet Tubman?”

  “Ella,” I said, nudging her, “knock it off.”

  “There’s more to our history than slavery, jazz, sports, and civil rights marches.”

  “We know that,” Ella said, getting sore.

  “Do you know a lot of African-American scientists?” Mr. Mital asked.

  Ella looked at me.

  “C’mon, genius,” Ella whispered to me. “Name some black scientists.”

  I’m sure I’d read about a few, but I couldn’t remember a lot of names. Finally, I said, “George Washington Carver.”

  “The peanut guy,” Ella said with a triumphant look.

  “Amazing man,” Mr. Mital agreed. “They called him the ‘Black Leonardo,’ after Leonardo da Vinci. Who else you got on that list?”

  Ella and I looked at each other. Then we shrugged.

  Mr. Mital walked over to the wall and flipped the light switch. Overhead, a bare lightbulb burst ablaze with light.

  “Who invented the lightbulb?” he asked.

  “Thomas Edison,” I said.

  “You going to tell us he was black?” Ella said.

  “It was a trick question,” Mr. Mital said. “No one invented the lightbulb.”

  “What?” Ella and I said at the same time.

  “Oh, Edison had a lot to do with bringing us the lightbulb. But no one invents anything. Not by themselves.”

  “Then how come all the history books are filled with names of inventors?” I asked.

  “It’s easier for people to remember one name. And easier for teachers to test you on those names. In truth, all inventors only improve on what’s come before them. They should be called innovators rather than inventors. See, inventing is like standing in a bucket brigade. People stand in a line that stretches from a water source to a fire, and they pass buckets of water up the line. The last person in line throws the water on the fire and gets all the credit for putting out the fire. Inventors are like the people in that line, each one contributing, but the one who throws the water gets the credit as the inventor.”

  I pulled out the blank journal tucked into my back pocket and started scribbling what he said. I even drew a bucket brigade. My whole life is in my journals. I have more than four hundred of them, all stacked neatly in my bookcase in chronological order from the time I was five.

  “Sir Isaac Newton once said —”

  “The apple-proves-gravity guy,” Ella said.

  “Right. He said, ‘If I have seen farther than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Meaning that whatever he achieved is because of what he learned from all the great scientists that came before him.”

  “So, what does the lightbulb have to do with African Americans?” Ella asked. The edge had gone from her voice.

  Mr. Mital grinned. “Ever heard of Lewis Latimer?”

  We shook our heads.

  “Let me ask you this: what color is electricity?” He flicked the lightbulb on and off.

  I thought for a second. “White?”

  “It’s yellow,” Ella scoffed.

  “Lightning looks white when it flashes,” I reminded her.

  “Yeah? Well, I don’t think that —”

  “This electricity,” Mr. Mital interrupted, “is black.”

  “Black?” Ella and I said at the same time. We both stared at the lightbulb.

  “You sure your glasses just aren’t dirty?” Ella said.

  “This city gets its electricity from the nucle
ar power plant. In fact, twenty percent of all the electricity in the U.S. comes from nuclear energy. That is thanks to Dr. Henry T. Sampson, who invented the gamma electric cell, which makes it possible to convert nuclear radiation into electricity.”

  Ella looked at me. “How come you didn’t know that, Thomas Nerdison?”

  I shrugged. Good question. Why didn’t I?

  “Speaking of Thomas Edison,” Mr. Mital said, “you ever hear of Granville T. Woods?”

  Ella and I shook our heads.

  “He was known as the ‘Black Thomas Edison’ because of all his inventions. In fact, Edison even tried to hire Woods. Alexander Graham Bell’s company bought Woods’s ‘telegraphony’ invention.” Mr. Mital flicked the light switch off and on again. “Black electricity.”

  “Black electricity.” Ella chuckled. She grabbed my journal out of my hands and started scribbling notes.

  “You are going to love this next part,” Mr. Mital said. He leaned forward as if he was about to tell us a deep, dark secret.

  Ella and I leaned forward, too, listening.

  He picked up a broom in each hand and tossed them to us. “Get to work.”

  He walked out of the room, but we could hear his laughter echoing in the hallway.

  As soon as he was gone, I grabbed my journal back from Ella and started writing down everything he’d told us.

  “You’re crazy if you think I’m doing all the sweeping while you scribble away,” Ella said.

  “I don’t want to forget what he said. I want to find out more later.”

  She snorted and started sweeping, then stopped and snapped her fingers at me. “Give me some paper, too. Just to make sure you get it right.”


  * There are 442 nuclear-power reactors in the world.

  * 104 of them are in the United States.

  * These reactors provide 14 percent of the world’s electricity and 20 percent of the U.S.’s energy.

  DR. HENRY T. SAMPSON is just as much an action hero as the muscle-bound Samson from the Bible. Born in Mississippi in 1934, Dr. Sampson was the first African American to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering, which he did in 1967. In 1971, he invented something called the gamma electric cell, which converts radiation directly into electricity. It was a big deal and Dr. Sampson won a bunch of awards for his invention. Here’s something interesting about him that has nothing to do with science: he also wrote books and produced documentary films about overlooked African-American filmmakers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


  * In 1890, there were 163,597 miles of railroad track in the U.S.

  * Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act on July 1, 1862, which paved the way for the Transcontinental Railroad and led to many inventions that improved railroad safety.

  When GRANVILLE T. WOODS was ten, he quit school because his family needed the money. He worked in a machine shop that repaired railroad equipment and went nuts over all the electrical machines. He paid guys that worked there to teach him how everything worked. Eventually, he attended college and studied engineering. He invented stuff like a steam- boiler furnace for trains, improved the telephone transmitter so the sound was clearer, and even improved the egg incubator. In 1887, he patented his most famous invention: the induction telegraph. The induction telegraph allowed moving trains to send and receive messages from railroad stations, making train travel a lot safer. Thomas Edison was so impressed that he offered Woods a job, but the “Black Edison” (that’s what they called him) preferred to stay the one and only Black Granville Woods and continued to work for himself.


  Lewis Howard Latimer was born on September 4, 1848, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the youngest of four children. Just six years earlier, his parents, George and Rebecca Latimer, had been slaves in Virginia. Wanting their children to be born free from slavery, they fled from their owners to Boston, Massachusetts. Once they arrived in Boston, George was jailed as a fugitive slave while Rebecca hid and waited for him. Two prominent men championed George’s release: Frederick Douglass, an influential ex-slave and the first African American to run for vice president, and William Lloyd Garrison, famed abolitionist and editor. Nevertheless, the judge ruled that George should be returned to his owner in Virginia. Fortunately, an African-American minister paid George’s owner four hundred dollars (about $9,600 today) for George to be freed.

  Lewis attended elementary school, where he excelled at reading and drawing. But, like most young men of that era, he spent most of his time working with his father at various jobs to support their family.

  In 1864, with the Civil War at its bloodiest peak, sixteen-year-old Lewis joined the navy. After serving on the Union gunboat the USS Massasoit, he was honorably discharged in 1865.


  Latimer returned to Boston and landed a three-dollars-a-week job as an office boy at Crosby and Gould, a patent law firm that specialized in protecting inventors’ patents. Here, Latimer observed the draftspeople creating their elaborate and precise drawings of clients’ inventions and taught himself how to do the same thing. After practicing on his own for several months, Lewis asked the company for the chance to show what he could do. Surprising and impressing everyone at the company with his skill, Latimer was promoted to draftsperson at twenty dollars a week.

  In 1876, Latimer was hired by Alexander Graham Bell, a teacher of deaf children, to draw his invention for a patent application. The invention was the telephone. Latimer and Bell worked all night to finish the blueprints and were able to file the patent just a few hours before another inventor working to patent a version of the telephone, making Bell the official inventor.

  In 1880, Latimer moved to Brooklyn, New York, to work for inventor Hiram Maxim, the founder of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company and a rival to Thomas Edison. During this time, Latimer devised a method for enclosing the lightbulb filament in a cardboard envelope, which kept the filament from breaking. This made the bulb more efficient. Although he received a patent for this breakthrough, all profits went to Maxim.

  In 1884, Latimer’s expertise in electric lighting was so highly regarded that he was hired by Thomas Edison’s company. Latimer helped Edison in three areas:

  (1) navigating the tricky patent application process;

  (2) protecting Edison’s patents by investigating claims against Edison and testifying as an expert witness;

  (3) amassing a comprehensive library on all available knowledge of incandescent lighting.

  A few years later, Latimer wrote Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System (1890), which was the “bible” on incandescent lighting. Latimer continued to work for Edison and patent inventions for the next twenty-seven years. In 1911, Latimer went to work for a private consulting firm, until he retired in 1922. He continued to invent and teach until his death, in 1928.


  Lewis Latimer was an important figure in the development of the lightbulb, but he loved the arts and had a passion for science. He painted portraits, played the flute, and wrote poetry, music, and plays.

  His family life brought him great joy. He married Mary Wilson in 1873, and they had two daughters, Janette and Louise.

  He was active in his Unitarian church and was an activist for civil rights. In his free time, he taught mechanical engineering, drawing, and English to immigrants. To honor his achievements, the Lewis H. Latimer School in Brooklyn was named after him in 1968. In 2006, Lewis Latimer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

  Historians list twenty-two inventors of incandescent lamps before Thomas Edison. In fact, Edison lost several patent lawsuits in which courts ruled that others, notably Joseph Swan in England and William Sawyer in the U.S., had invented lightbulbs before him.

  Edison and his staff of ten scientists clearly used the work of Joseph Swan in particular when developing their own version of the lightbulb. Edison als
o bought the patents of other inventors. He and his team were able to vastly improve the lightbulb to burn longer and brighter than earlier versions and helped to make the technology less expensive.

  Despite not being the original inventor of the lightbulb, Edison is responsible for making electricity easily available. He realized that in order for the lightbulb to become popular, an entire infrastructure of generators, wires, fixtures, and lamps would be necessary. Edison used his considerable reputation as an inventor to entice investors to give him large amounts of money needed to get this massive infrastructure built. His genius as a scientist — and as a businessman — helped to bring electricity to the average home.

  About an hour later, Ella stopped sweeping and pulled out her cell phone. She started punching numbers.

  I kept sweeping. “Who are you calling? Mama?”

  “Pizza. I’m starving and they deliver.”

  “I don’t have any money,” I said. “Do you?”

  “We’ll let the Mad Hatter pay. A guy that smart should have some cash, right?”

  Mr. Mital’s voice startled us. “‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’”

  Ella and I just stared at him.

  “That’s a little weird,” Ella said.

  Mr. Mital grinned. “If you’re going to call me the Mad Hatter, you should at least know what he says in Alice in Wonderland.”

  “Does it make more sense in the book than when you say it?”

  Mr. Mital picked up a crumpled brown paper bag from the huge pile of trash we had just swept together. He shook it open, walked over to Ella, and nodded for her to put the cell phone into the bag. Ella hesitated. I knew she was trying to figure out just what Mama’s punishment would be for not doing as she was told. She must have come to the same conclusion I did — two weeks without her cell phone — because she dropped it into the bag. He walked over to me, and I dropped mine in, too.

  He twisted the neck of the bag shut and briskly walked out of the room. “Follow me.”


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