A few nights ago, I was sending someone a Yiyun Li video, and I stumbled across the video above, in which John Dabiri, a biophysicist and professor from Caltech, talks about his research. He won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 for his work in biophysics, which is a $500,000 no-strings-attached grant (also won by Yiyun Li for literature) to promote innovation and creativity from gifted individuals. Dabiri works on wind turbines and design, which could have a very positive influence on our economy if we ever succeed in cutting back on oil for more sustainable solutions. I was thinking to myself–”Hey, an African American scientist! Why isn’t the NAACP jumping on this and making a big deal about this guy?” While the NAACP is trying to create a racist, uneven playing field by eliminating real admissions requirements for schools, they’re missing some wonderful opportunities to promote people who could be real inspirations to their base. If you google “NAACP Dabiri,” you’ll get one endorsement from a pro-African American blogger, but no big NAACP endorsements/publicity.
Dabiri is actually the son of Nigerian immigrants, which means that he doesn’t fit into the traditional narrative. His ancestors didn’t go through American slavery. From his wiki:
Dabiri’s parents are Nigerian immigrants, who settled in Toledo, Ohio, in 1975. Dabiri’s father was a mechanical engineer who taught math at a community college. His mother, a computer scientist, raised three children and started a software development company. It was watching his father, who would occasionally do engineering work on the side, that encouraged Dabiri’s love of engineering.
Dabiri is technically African American since he was born here, but he was born of two parents who were both immigrants to this country. That said, he still offers some great insights that I believe the NAACP should jump on. I think they should be calling him and inviting him to speak to the world. They should give the man a platform. From the same wiki, Dabiri has interest in this very subject. He is quoted from an NPR interview in which he says:
Having two parents there who encouraged me and in some cases forced me to study and to really take academics seriously, was very important at an early stage. And then going through school, the role of my teachers was always so important. I remember my fourth grade teacher … [she] made me believe that I was smart and so I took that and sort of owned that and tried to live up to the expectations that she had placed on me, even as a fourth grader. And so we really want to grab hold of the imagination of the first graders and the second graders at a very early stage, and get them excited about becoming scientists, as excited as they are about becoming a fire fighter or the next rap star.
I would think that this would be a great inspiration to lots of kids and parents. I think the NAACP clings to a certain kind of narrative, but this ought to be a part of the narrative too.
Hey, many Asian Americans can find inspiration from guys like Jeremy Lin and Tony Hsieh, guys who are just a generation removed from the motherland. If you look at Jews in 20th century literature, guys like Roth and Bellows, much of their literature focuses on their immigration story.
So why doesn’t the NAACP embrace its newest immigrants? I’ve met quite a few Nigerian immigrants both in Portland and on this blog, and I can say in no uncertain terms that the ones I’ve met are leaders in their fields. I know a really smart accountant, I know of at least one CFO, one business leader, and one electrical engineer who are all from Nigeria. Why not invite Nigerians into the field as an inspiration for what African Americans can accomplish? Why not praise Dabiri the same way Asian Americans praise Jeremy Lin or Michael Chang? And while we’re at it, why not take these Nigerian immigrants and put them in a room with other African American business leaders who have succeeded? I’m sure they’d have a lot to share and learn from each other.
By the way, I’m not saying that the NAACP should emulate the kinds of actions that Asian American organizations have. We’ve got Asian American orgs that give awards to Ken Jeong, David Henry Hwang, and Amy Tan. The NAACP best not be following our example–we may be the single worst example of “follow the money” on the planet. BUT logically speaking, there are lots of other paths that groups like the NAACP could take that would be better for both the general society AND African Americans.