A Black History Month look at West Indian Archie: A Story of Wasted Scientific Potential

“People in the inner cities are naturally creative and inventive often times out of necessity.”

I originally published this piece on the Examiner in February of 2016.  It is not about a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) practitioner or inventor per se, but instead it is a look at an individual who had the potential to practice science.  Because of life choices and circumstances however, he used his intellectual gifts for criminal activities.  This person is an example of the wasted intellectual ability in the United States’ inner cities and also something my father talked about which was that, “People in the inner cities are naturally creative and inventive often times out of necessity.”

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West Indian Archie was portrayed by Delroy Lindo, in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington.  Though he was a minor character in the movie and in Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, West Indian Archie holds several significances, particularly in the realm of science.  Many of these significances are extremely relevant today in an era where there is a great push to get underrepresented minorities involved in STEM.

Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little) first met West Indian Archie in New York city prior to converting to Islam and dedicating his life to Civil Rights.  West Indian Archie was one of the bigger players in the ‘Numbers’ game in Harlem who had done time up the Hudson River at Ossining State Prison best known as ‘Sing Sing‘.  He eventually took Malcolm under his wing and taught him the Numbers game, and used the novice in his illegal activities.

West Indian Archie had the amazing ability memorize long sequences of numbers such that he never had to write them down.  He in fact warned Malcolm never to write his customer’s numbers down to minimize the potential for incriminating evidence should he get apprehended by the police.  As with most street partnerships, theirs eventually crumbled due to greed and ego, and Malcolm Little eventually fled Harlem to save his own life.

After Malcolm Little converted to Islam and became Malcolm X, he later found West Indian Archie close to death and the two reconciled their differences.  After educating himself in jail and gaining a new perspective on the world, Malcolm X realized that someone like West Indian Archie with his ability to memorize long sequences of numbers, could have used his talent to become any number of things particularly in the sciences. He could have become a physicist, an astronaut, a mathematician, etc.  He realized that in blighted urban areas all over the United States there were similar minds with the abilities to practice science that were wasted and used in things like criminal activity by default – a challenge we still face today.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Whose job is it to teach Black History?
The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority
How my HBCU led me to my STEM career
Ben Carson’s education story and what it means revisited
A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian
A Black History Month look at NASA’s Lieutenant Colonel Michael P. Anderson

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