Learn About Black Technologists Through These Code Exercises

6 minutes

February is Black History Month, and this year’s theme centers around celebrating Black artists and their impact. When most of us think about art, our minds usually go to traditional expressive mediums like music, performance, visual art, literature, and film. You can probably think of countless influential Black artists who’ve shaped culture and the world. But there’s a subgenre that combines technology and art that you may not know about: Afrofuturism.

Afrofuturism is a genre that “expresses notions of Black identity, agency, and freedom through art, creative works, and activism that envision liberated futures for Black life,” according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. From Octavia Butler sci-fi novels to the Black Panther films and Janelle Monae’s music, you can find Afrofuturist themes laced into pop culture past and present. At its core, Afrofuturism is a lens and a tool for highlighting the richness and diversity of Black culture and imagining empowered futures for Black people. Technology is often a key part of Afrofuturism, both in how works are created and the types of themes that they explore.

Learn something new for free

To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve put together exercises that are inspired by the lives and accomplishments of Black technologists, the Afrofuturism genre, and Black artists throughout history. These project ideas are all open-ended prompts, so feel free to riff on the ideas and make them your own.

We’re firm believers that code can be a tool for positive change in our world, whether you’re coding apps that address inequalities in your community or programming a thought-provoking art piece. We hope that learning about the Black technologists who laid the groundwork for future generations inspires you to keep working towards your individual goals.  

Celebrations calendar

The inspiration: Black History Month was founded by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. We celebrate Black History Month in February because both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass have birthdays during this month.

The exercise: Create a calendar app that people can use to reference Black History Month events that take place in February. Make sure users can see details about daily events and give your calendar a unique style. You can start with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to build this app, or use the AngularJS framework (it’s great for single-page web apps).

Science fiction sentiment analysis

The inspiration: Renowned science-fiction author Octavia Butler wrote novels that explored themes of Black injustice through a dystopian or futuristic lens. Many of her books were published back in the ‘70s, but the themes and messages that she writes about feel prescient today.

The exercise: Develop a Python program that performs sentiment analysis on science-fiction books, focusing on themes related to race, gender, and power dynamics. Sentiment analysis is a technique that uses natural language processing, linguistics, and text analysis to categorize the subjective emotional tone of a body of text. Fun fact: You can apply sentiment analysis to everything from song lyrics to posts on X (formerly known as Twitter).

Cartridge creator

The inspiration: Before you could play games on your phone or collect Nintendo cartridges, video games came pre-installed on gaming consoles. That changed in 1976, when Jerry Lawson figured out a way to store games as software on swappable ROM cartridges.

The exercise: Come up with the concept for a story-based video game about Jerry Lawson’s career as a Silicon Valley engineer and pioneer. Decide what type of game you’d make and which platform you’d use, then outline the objectives, mechanics, and controls your players would use. We’ll teach you how to develop and design a video game in the free course Introduction to Game Development.

Math star

The inspiration: Katherine Johnson was a mathematician at NASA who was instrumental in the success of some of the first manned spaceflights. Katherine was on a team that that helped ensure the safe trajectory and return of astronaut John Glenn’s 1962 spaceflight (the hit movie and book Hidden Figures is based on this true story!).

The exercise: Use the primary Python operators to code a calculator program that performs basic arithmetic operations on integers and prints a solution. Curious which coding languages you can use to perform more advanced, large-scale math problems? Read more about the programming languages to learn for math.

GPS groundbreaker

The inspiration: In the 1950s, mathematician Dr. Gladys West became the second African American woman hired to work at the Naval Proving Ground. She used her programming prowess to help develop a program that calculated satellite orbits, which became the basis of the Global Positioning System, aka GPS. Dr. West’s work is why we can look up directions on our phones, monitor satellites in space, and so much more. 

The exercise: Create a Python program that simulates the processing and analysis of geolocation data, like coordinates, altitude, speed, and time. Provide clear documentation on how to use the program, explaining the algorithms used for data analysis and visualization. You can get started with Matplotlib in the free course Intro to Data Visualization with Python.

Programming perceptual art

The inspiration: Black Lives Matter is a global activism movement that campaigns against violence and systemic racism toward Black people. Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

The exercise: For this project, you’ll code a perceptual art piece that honors the Black Lives Matter movement using the VR framework A-Frame. Perceptual art is a form of artistic expression that pushes the boundaries of perception by employing multidimensional techniques to transform flat images into 3D representations. Discover more about the framework in the free course Learn A-Frame (VR).

Language legacy

The inspiration: John Henry Thompson is a computer scientist who studies the relationship between technology and creative expression. In the late ‘80s, he invented a high-level programming language called Lingo that’s used to control multimedia elements on screens.

The exercise: Build a database that contains information about when various programming languages were invented, who the chief developer was, and the languages that preceded it. A relational database would be the best fit for this dataset; you can get started with our free course Intro to SQL. If you want to learn more about the early days of your favorite programming language, check out this blog about how popular programming languages were invented.

Creative coding

The inspiration: Neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up in Brooklyn and became a key figure in the New York City art scene. His work is often held up as an example of the Afrofuturism movement (though scholars didn’t coin the term until the ‘90s, after his death).

The exercise: There are lots of ways you can code expressive works of art, for example, you can use the open-source JavaScript library p5.js or turn to Midjourney to generate images. Code a piece that’s based on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s aesthetic. Take a look at these examples of creative coding to get some inspo.

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