Race and Technology

A blog about the intersection of race and technology.

First Black Poet of the Digital Age?

Debit Memo

By John Stanley Ford

Hail to thee, trite paper!
O nightmare of a clerk!
The cause of many a caper
Of some pencil-pushing jerk.

Comes night when I am sleeping,
And resting peacefully,
I see you plainly weeping,
And begging, "Please code me."

I blow a fuse, more or less,
And nasty words I mutter;
But truly, I will confess
You are my bread and butter.

I do not know if my father was the first poet to write about digital technology, I suspect not, even though I'm fairly certain he was the first black poet to write about this new technology in the late 1940s. With his background in accounting, my father first worked in IBM's Accounts Payable Department, where he coded debit memos, deductions from amounts owed by IBM to its vendors. He would pass this information on to key punch operators, who then typed vendor information along with deductions onto punch cards for subsequent sorting and tabulation by the IBM machines known at the time as Hollerith machines or electronic accounting machines (EAMs).

In 1947, not long after he first went to work for IBM, my father penned one of the early poems of the Digital Age, devoted to coding debit memos for IBM electronic accounting machines. Software engineers, even today, will recognize a familiar, nagging frustration expressed in this poem.

An adapted excerpt from Think Black published by Amistad Press, a division of HarperCollins.

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Tuesday, 28 May 2024