What Color is My World?

Home > Other > What Color is My World? > Page 4
What Color is My World? Page 4

by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  “Ah ha! Ringo says that in the movie A Hard Day’s Night. When they ask him if he’s a Mod or a Rocker.” Ella stuck her tongue out at me and laughed again. Then she did a little victory dance. Something had definitely changed with her. I could tell she was sort of enjoying herself.

  Plus, Ella had been writing a lot, too. It was nice to see her interested in something for a change, even though she’d never let on that she cared. I could see a light in her eyes when she wrote, as if she was seeing possibilities in her own life she’d never considered before.

  A bell jangled.

  We turned to see Mr. Mital, who was holding a small bicycle bell, the kind on little kids’ bikes. “You wanted some warning. I figured this would do the trick.”

  Ella smiled. “Yeah, that’ll do.”

  “Well, Mr. Mital,” I said, “it looks like we’re about done here. Thanks for all your help — with the house and the history lessons.”

  “History lessons are all around you. Pick up any simple object and ask yourself, ‘How did this get here?’ and suddenly you’re transported to other times. Like those traffic lights out there. Garrett Morgan once witnessed a terrible accident and asked himself, ‘What if I made something to stop such tragedies?’ So he created a type of traffic signal, and it saved a lot of lives. Not the first one, not the kind we use now, but one that saved many lives. Garrett Morgan also once ran into a poisonous mine to rescue trapped workers, wearing a safety hood he’d invented for firefighters.”

  “I don’t think I could do something like that,” I said. I expected some sarcastic comment from Ella, but all she said was a quiet “Me neither.”

  “What all these inventors and innovators have in common,” Mr. Mital said, “is that they wanted to improve people’s lives. I think especially for African Americans coming out of those harsh times when most of their people suffered repression and discrimination, they were inspired to alleviate some of that suffering. Sometimes in big ways, but sometimes in little ways.” Mr. Mital reached into his pocket, pulled out a small pencil sharpener, and tossed it to me. “A black man named John Lee Love invented this. Didn’t save any lives that I know of. But it sure changed the world as we know it.”

  I caught the sharpener and quickly sharpened my pencil so I could write in my journal.

  Ella leaned forward and said, “What else do you see?”

  Mr. Mital waved his arms around. “There’s so much. Everything from those shoes you’re wearing to the mailbox outside to the ice-cream scoop in the kitchen to the Super Soaker squirt gun. All invented or innovated by black men and women.”

  “Can you tell us about them?” I asked.

  “Which ones?”

  “All of them.”

  Mr. Mital looked at his watch. “Well . . .” He walked over to the closet and started rooting around inside. His voice was muffled a little as he spoke. “I suppose I can stay a little longer. But first, isn’t there a Beatles song about a hole in the roof?”

  “‘Fixing a Hole,’” Ella and I said at the same time.

  “Jinx,” she said, “you owe me a Coke.”

  “And what happens if you don’t fix that hole in the roof?” he asked from inside the closet. We could hear clattering as he moved around in there.

  “Rain gets in?” Ella said with a shrug.

  “Exactly!” Mr. Mital said. Suddenly he jumped out of the closet holding an enormous Super Soaker squirt gun. “And when it rains, it pours!” he said, grinning.

  And he started firing. And in an instant we were soaked.


  * Americans eat an average of 26.4 pounds of ice cream and other frozen dairy products per person every year.

  * The most popular flavors are vanilla (29 percent), chocolate (8.9 percent), butter pecan (5.3 percent), and strawberry (5.3 percent).

  Inventing fancy electrical stuff is cool and all, but here’s an invention that speaks to my heart (and stomach!): the ice-cream scoop. So simple you’d think that whoever invented ice cream would have thought of it the very next day. Yet it took a black hotel porter (that’s the guy who carries the guests’ luggage) to come up with it. ALFRED L. CRALLE was working in Pittsburgh when he noticed how hard it was to dig frozen ice cream from its containers. The poor slob doing the scooping usually had to use both hands and a couple of utensils — and still the ice cream would stick to everything. Cralle was thirty years old in 1897, when he received his patent for the mechanical “Ice Cream Mold and Disher,” which is still the same basic design used all over the world, more than a hundred years later. We have one in our kitchen drawer!


  * More than 200 million Super Soakers were sold in its first ten years of production.

  * Almost $1 billion worth of Super Soakers have been sold since 1992.

  * In 2000, Lonnie Johnson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

  Not every invention has to be something practical. Sometimes an invention can change the world by making it a whole lot more fun. That’s what happened when a nuclear engineer named LONNIE JOHNSON created the Super Soaker in 1991. It would be hard to find a kid in America who hasn’t played with one at least once!

  Lonnie Johnson grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and went to Tuskegee University. When he’s not designing the coolest squirt guns of all time, he’s inventing other stuff, like the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Conversion System, which is a system that provides a more efficient way to use heat to generate energy. Basically, this could be the hope for more widespread use of solar energy. Right now, solar energy systems only convert about 30 percent of solar energy into electricity, which makes it more expensive than burning oil or coal. But Lonnie’s invention raises that efficiency rate to more than 60 percent. I know this invention is probably a lot more important than the squirt gun, but, hey, I’m a kid!


  Garrett Augustus Morgan was born near Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877, the seventh of eleven children. His mother was the daughter of a minister; his father was a former slave whose own father was a white slave owner named John Hunt Morgan. During the Civil War, Garrett’s grandfather J. H. Morgan joined the Confederate army and was killed by Union soldiers. Morgan’s death freed Garrett’s family from slavery. Twelve years later, Garrett was born.

  Garrett’s parents were sharecroppers; they farmed land they didn’t own and only kept a portion of the crop. It was a very hard life. Generally, children started working on the farm when they were five or six years old and went to school only a few months a year. When Garrett was fourteen, he had to make a choice: stay in Kentucky and work the land or try his luck in the North.

  In 1891, Morgan found work as a handyman and continued his education by hiring a tutor to teach him proper English grammar.

  When he turned eighteen, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, with only ten cents in his pocket. He eventually found a job sweeping floors for five dollars a week in the garment district and later became a sewing machine adjuster for two companies that made women’s clothing. Morgan quickly became known as the man who could fix any machine. He also created various parts for the sewing machines, making them faster and more efficient.


  In 1907, Morgan, now thirty years old, started his own business repairing and selling sewing machines. Two years later, he started a tailoring shop that had thirty-two employees. The company made clothing with the machines that Morgan built. Both businesses proved successful, and he got married, had children, bought his own home, and became the first African American in Cleveland to own an automobile. But that wasn’t enough. He couldn’t help but look around and see how to improve the world.

  In 1912, Morgan patented his Morgan Safety Hood and Smoke Protector, which he designed to protect firefighters. His invention won several gold medals and was cheaper, lighter, and easier to use and wear than anything else on the market. Despite this, many fire companies refused to buy the device because a black ma
n had invented it. To counter this prejudice, Morgan had a white friend pose as the inventor while Morgan posed as a Native American demonstrator of the hood.

  In 1916, an explosion in an underground tunnel under Lake Erie trapped thirty-two men. The rescue seemed impossible; several men died in their attempts, and no one else was willing to try again. Then Morgan was called in. He and his brother put on the hoods and led a party to save the men. When newspapers later reported the successful rescue, Morgan’s safety hood was ordered by fire departments nationwide.

  Another time, Morgan saw a horrific street accident, which led him to innovate a three-position traffic signal that helped prevent accidents, which he patented in 1923.

  He also invented hair-care products, though quite by accident. While working on making sewing machine needles operate better, he experimented with various chemicals. He wiped one of these chemicals onto a rag and noticed that the curled threads of the rag had straightened. He called over his dog, a curly-coated Airedale, applied the chemical solution to its coat, and was amazed to see the dog’s fur straighten. Then he put some on his own hair, and it too straightened. In 1913, Morgan founded the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company to market his hair-straightening cream, hair dye, hair oil, and various combs.


  Garrett was married briefly as a teenager and waited until he was thirty-one to marry again, this time to seamstress Mary Anne Hasek. Mary was white, and both their families opposed the marriage. Despite this, the marriage proved to be a happy and long one, lasting fifty-five years and producing three sons.

  In 1943, Morgan was diagnosed with glaucoma, an eye disease that eventually led to ninety-percent blindness, but he continued to innovate, invent, and remain active in helping the black community. His contributions have been repeatedly honored by naming public places after him, including an elementary school in Chicago, a public school in Harlem, and a water treatment plant in Cleveland. Even the section of his hometown where he was born — Claysville — was renamed Garrett Morgan Place. And in 1991, he was inducted into the Ohio Science and Technology Hall of Fame.

  Garrett Morgan died in 1963, at the age of eighty-six, leaving behind a family that loved him, a community that admired him, and a world greatly improved by him.

  Ella and I were sitting on the front porch, soaking wet, when Mama pulled up to the curb.

  “This crazy list had me driving all over town,” she said as she got out of the car. “I had to go to half a dozen different stores.”

  “It’s OK, Mama,” Ella said.

  Mama looked up at Ella. Then at me.

  “Why are you two all wet? What broke?”

  “Nothing broke,” I said. “Mr. Mital squirted us with a Super Soaker. Did you know a black nuclear engineer named Lonnie Johnson invented the Super Soaker?”

  “Or that a black woman named Alice Parker invented a heating system that can be controlled to heat individual rooms?” Ella said.

  “Though the Romans first introduced central heating in 100 CE,” I added.

  “That’s right.” Ella nodded. “Tell her about John Lee Love.”

  “Let me guess,” Mama said. “He was black?”

  Ella and I nodded.

  “There’s more,” Ella said. “Lots more. Our whole house is like a museum of all these cool discoveries by black scientists, only it’s stuff we use every day.”

  “How did you learn all this? Did you come across some old magazine article while you were cleaning?”

  “Mr. Mital told us. He knows all about that sort of stuff.”

  Mama stared at both of us for a moment.

  “Where is Mr. Mital?” Mama asked.

  “Inside,” Ella and I said at once.

  We followed Mama inside.

  But when we went in, Mr. Mital was nowhere to be found. We called his name, searched the house, and even looked in the backyard. His tools were gone; his ice chest was gone. It was as if he’d never been there.

  “That’s kind of spooky,” Ella said.

  “Well, he did tell me he could only work today. That’s why he suggested I have you two help him out.”

  “He suggested we come here today?” I said.

  Mama nodded.

  “Herbie, come here.” Ella was sitting on the stairs beside my journal. Across the cardboard cover, which before had just said composition, someone — Mr. Mital? — had printed: What Color Is My World?

  “Cool,” said Ella.

  I liked it, too. But I kept thinking about Mr. Mital. About his name. Something about his name. I pulled out my cell phone, typed in a name, and did a search. An article came up. With a photo. I stared.

  “Ella, look at this,” I whispered.

  I held up the phone. Her mouth dropped open, too. “What the heck?”

  “Roger Edward Mital. R. E. Mital. Spelled backward is . . .”

  “Latimer,” Ella said softly.

  And we both stared at the photo of Lewis Latimer on my phone. Only the photo was also of Mr. Mital.

  “OK,” Ella said, her voice suddenly very scientific. “There has to be an explanation. He’s like some great-great-great grandson or something.”

  “Yeah, that’s probably it.”

  We looked at each other and knew that neither of us believed that, even though there was no way we could believe anything else.

  Could we?

  ONE MEASURE OF AMERICA’S GREATNESS is the enormity of its impact on the world through the thousands of inventions it has contributed. We have long been and continue to be a leader in scientific innovation. Unfortunately, many of the greatest American inventors have been ignored by history textbooks based on the color of their skin or their gender. Another measure of America’s greatness is its willingness to right such wrongs, which is why I decided to write this book. By telling of their unsung but vital contributions, I hope to celebrate these overlooked role models so that we can all appreciate one another in meaningful ways.

  I want to thank my cowriter, Raymond Obstfeld, for his steadfast commitment to the subject matter and his consistently good ideas. He is so much more than my right arm. I also want to thank my business manager, Deborah Morales, for her vision and contribution in helping me establish myself in the world of children’s publishing. She has constantly encouraged me to expand my world beyond basketball, with very positive results. Lastly, I’d like to thank my editors, Karen Lotz and Katie Cunningham, for their valuable guidance and for giving me the opportunity to be a children’s author in the Candlewick family.

  — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  THERE ARE TWO REASONS I WANTED TO co-author this book. First, the chance to work again with Kareem is like being chosen first for a pickup game of playground basketball. Kareem’s passion for introducing kids to overlooked inventors is another example of his lifelong commitment to education and to community. As a teacher, I share that commitment with him. For both of us, history isn’t a boring subject in school; it’s the record of people’s hopes, achievements, and even failures. Most important, it’s a lesson to all children that the ideas that change society can come from anywhere — even from them. The second reason I became involved in this project is my son, Max, and daughter, Harper. They were always in my thoughts as I wrote. Their relentless curiosity and wicked sense of humor helped inspire the characters of Herbie and Ella.

  Finally, it should be noted that inspiration produces ideas, but for those ideas to become a reality often requires a lot of help from our friends. Kareem and I did the research and writing, but Deborah Morales worked tirelessly with our wonderful editors, Karen Lotz and Katie Cunningham, on every detail to make sure the book turned out every bit as awesome as it did.

  — Raymond Obstfeld


  Cefrey, Holly. The Inventions of Granville Woods: The Railroad Telegraph System and the “Third Rail”. 19th Century American Inventors. New York: PowerKids, 2003.

  Currie, Stephen. African American Inventors. Lucent Library of Black His
tory. Detroit: Lucent Books, 2010.

  Fouché, Rayvon. Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson. John Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  Hudson, Wade. Book of Black Heroes: Scientists, Healers, and Inventors. East Orange, NJ: Just Us Books, 2003.

  Oluonye, Mary N. Garrett Augustus Morgan: Businessman, Inventor, Good Citizen. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2008.

  Rigby. The Inventions of Granville Woods. On Deck Reading Libraries. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.

  Salas, Laura P. Charles Drew: Pioneer in Medicine. Fact Finders: Biographies. Mankato, MN: Capstone, 2006.

  Stille, Darlene R. Percy Lavon Julian: Pioneering Chemist. Signature Lives. Minneapolis: Compass Point, 2009.

  Sullivan, Otha Richard. African American Women Scientists and Inventors. Black Stars, ed. Jim Haskins. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2001.

  Swanson, Gloria Borseth, and Margaret V. Ott. I’ve Got an Idea! The Story of Frederick McKinley Jones. Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, 1994.

  Taylor, Gaylia. George Crum and the Saratoga Chip. Illus. Frank Morrison. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2006.

  Venezia, Mike. Charles Drew: Doctor Who Got the World Pumped Up to Donate Blood. Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Inventors & Scientists. New York: Children’s Press, 2009.

  Venezia, Mike. Daniel Hale Williams: Surgeon Who Opened Hearts and Minds. Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Inventors & Scientists. New York: Children’s Press, 2010.


  Kodama, Vicki. From Dreams to Reality: A Tribute to Minority Inventors. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 1986. VHS.

  Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, The. Lewis Latimer: Renaissance Man (1848–1928). African-American Inventor. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. 2000. DVD. Accompanying educational material available online at http://invention.smithsonian.org/downloads/latimer_manual.pdf.


‹ Prev