What to read and watch during Black History Month

The ASBMB Maximizing Access Committee shares its picks
ASBMB Today Staff
Feb. 1, 2023

We asked members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Maximizing Access Committee and staff to tell us which books, articles, films and shows they recommend for Black History Month. Below are their picks.

“Forgotten Genius”

This is a 2007 NOVA documentary on Percy Julian, a Black chemist who overcame great challenges and racism in segregated America to become a world-class scientist, a self-made millionaire and a civil rights leader.

Julian became the first scientist to synthesize physostigmine, a drug used in glaucoma treatment. He also discovered stigmasterol crystals, which eventually led him to develop methods to produce hormones, such as progesterone, commercially.

Eventually, Julian was recognized for his many scientific accomplishments when he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973. He established both Julian Laboratories and a nonprofit research organization, the Julian Research Institute.

The documentary is just under two hours long and is free to stream (with captions) on PBS’s website. (Note: There is a graphic/disturbing scene at 5:43.)

Watch the documentary on NOVA’s website.

— Submitted by Lea Vacca Michel, Rochester Institute of Technology

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

This 2010 book by Rebecca Skloot not only is about race and modern medicine but also discretely discusses bioethics and public opinion about science.

It is written for a general audience in an easy-flowing language as the author describes her own journey through history in her quest to learn about Lacks and her family.

HBO and Harpo made a movie by the same name starring Oprah Winfrey in 2017.

Read an excerpt of the book on the Penguin Random House website.

— Submitted by Anita Nag, Furman University

“See You Yesterday”

This 2019 science fiction film by Netflix is about a young girl who is really into science. With a friend, she creates backpacks that enable time travel, which she uses to try to save her brother, who is shot by a white police officer.

Watch the official trailer on YouTube.

— Submitted by Ciearra Smith, ASBMB

“I’m a Black scientist, tired of facing racism and exclusion from academia”

This article in Science is about being a Ph.D. candidate in cancer biology. The author’s background, motivation, quality of work, etc. constantly are scrutinized, criticized, and put down by peers and mentors in the racial and gender majority. Although she is a U.S. citizen and has a common last name that any English writer should not misspell, it often is misspelled and replaced with an African-sounding name. She does not receive proper credit for her work, and she often is listed lower on the author list than she should be. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about her treatment. Despite these experiences, she still wants to stay in academia, to become a professor, and to serve as a mentor and role model. She only had three Black professors throughout her training.

I can relate. During my undergraduate training, I was usually the only racial/ethnic minority in science courses. Being both an introvert and a racial/ethnic minority, I often felt awkward and had difficulty working with partners and in a group setting. It did not help that I went to schools in the “very red” part of the Midwest and worked in a department that was very white and conservative. (I have degrees in animal sciences). Although I did not see anything too overt, I experienced systemic racism and exclusion. I once even was told to kill my accent during an interview. Many of us have to work twice as much and be twice as good to cut it just because we are not “them.”

I do not think this essay brings anything new to those of us whose experiences are similar to the author’s. However, we often minimize and accept these experiences as a part of the norm and do not speak up about how damaging they are. We need to voice our experiences and bring issues up so that what we have gone through (and are going through) will not be passed on to the next generation.

Read the open-access article in Science.

— Submitted by Yass Kobayashi, The College of St. Scholastica

 “Hidden Figures”

This 2016 film is based on the biography written by Margot Lee Shetterly. The movie reflects on the life and struggles of three African American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the time of the race to space. This is a movie for families to watch together with kids. It’s available on several streaming services.

Watch the official trailer on YouTube.

— Submitted by Anita Nag, Furman University

“High on the Hog”

This four-part Netflix docuseries, hosted by food writer Stephen Satterfield, is about African American cuisine. It’s based on the 2012 book by Jessica B. Harris titled “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.” The docuseries combines delicious food and African American history, which can be argued is American history. You will learn that a lot of the cuisine we love today, such as macaroni and cheese, was indeed brought to America from Europe by an African American chef who was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. Good news: A second season has been greenlighted!

Watch the official trailer on YouTube.

— Submitted by Ciearra Smith, ASBMB

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ASBMB Today Staff

This article was written by a member or members of the ASBMB Today staff.

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