Born & Raised In Sawdust: How Race Affected A Journey To Science & Engineering

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We are in a time in which a confluence of economic, health, and racial awareness permeates the media and our lives. Here at CleanTechnica, we’ve explored “The Racial Disparities In Solar Deployment,” “Trump’s Racist Tweets,” and “Standing With Workers During The COVID-19 Crisis,” among related issues. And now a renowned research scientist has written a book titled Born & Raised in Sawdust: My Journey around the World in 80 Years. The text gives us in the clean energy world an opportunity to see from the inside what a childhood, education, and career in science was like for persons of color during the last 80 years.

The memoir is a fascinating journey, and one from which we all can learn.

Photo used with permission of Dr. Lewis Thigpen and retrieved from Author House

Described as “revealing, instructive” (Amazon) and “a gateway of insight” (Morningstar), the memoir chronicles the life and significant contributions that Dr. Lewis Thigpen has made to research on non-linear wave (energy) propagation in geological materials. He has authored or co-authored over 60 publications in engineering, science, and education.

If you want the generic, glowing, and largely deserved overview of Born & Raised in Sawdust (“Sawdust” is a play-on-words that highlights both the small town in Florida where Thigpen was raised and the meager beginnings from which he rose to mechanical engineering prominence), check out the typical online reviews.

This review, however, shares Thigpen’s path as a prodigy against the backdrop of white supremacy. His insights into the way that race and privilege continue to permeate the world of science are instructive and important reading for many of us who have the unearned advantage of white skin and privilege.

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Who is Dr. Lewis Thigpen?

Dr. Lewis Thigpen’s professional career included positions at Sandia National Laboratories, Lowell Technological Institute (now UMass/ Lowell), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Howard University, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

His higher education began at Florida A&M University and continued at Howard University (with monetary awards from the Goodyear Foundation, the state of Florida, and the National Defense Education Act) and Illinois Institute of Technology (initially, no faculty members supported him as he attempted his PhD comprehensive exams, and he wasn’t able to attend graduation due to lack of funds).

It doesn’t take long to become absorbed by Thigpen’s story. By page 6, we’re caught up in a child’s life led close to the land. Yet, at this early point of the text, we don’t know why we’re reading Thigpen’s story — there’s no preface that outlines his eventual accomplishments or that ties a big picture of science and engineering to the contextual framework of his earliest years.

The background we need is offered slightly later in the book, however:

The skills and hand-on experiences I acquired from growing up on the farm — including play, skills such as leadership, team work, and ways of learning — served me well in the earning of 3 engineering degrees and in my long career of more than 40 years in the engineering field” (p. 44).

Balancing research and higher education instruction, Thigpen feels the pull of prestige between the two fields. “Positions of leadership in education might be taken for granted in the US but are highly respected in some countries in the Caribbean and Africa,” he notes (p. 218).

Connections between Childhood & Career in Born & Raised In Sawdust

We learn that an early 20th century family of color in interior Florida necessarily relied on keen cultural transmission to pass along, generation-to-generation, how to grow crops (especially shade tobacco), store and preserve food, and engage in trade. We’re captivated to think of a 2-cycle engine that squeezes sugar cane juice and that has replaced a long-held practice of mules to power the mill.

Image retrieved from USDA

Ice plants, horse-drawn convenience stores, chamber pots, homes without electricity, hand-sewn clothes — these are norms that seemed manageable in comparison’s to the Thigpen family’s need to watch over each other, as “the law was not going to protect us” (p. 9).

White racism is rampant in Sawdust; the KKK is active. His earliest years were grounded in a curricula that “included more that taking formal classes at school. It included survival techniques. The family members and others taught us knowledge to survive within limited means in a rural community under Jim Crow” (p. 32).


Overt Racism & Microaggressions

The disparities in how he is treated due to his skin color permeates the book. For example, Thigpen was often prohibited from Whites-only lodging — in the South and in the North — while in the Army, in pursuit of higher education, and even in his professional career.

Problems he encountered in these workplaces — which emerged as a result of interpersonal animosity due to prejudice and racism — included:

  • blame placed on him due to lack of project progress
  • slander about his purported lack of engagement or presenting false information
  • group leaders who failed to protect him during project presentations
  • colleagues who resented his authority
  • failure of co-workers to intervene during overt demonstrations of racism during required travel

Scientific Writing, Impassioned Prose

He defines all terms throughout the book (i.e. “efficiency (one room);” “pool (money);” “subway (EL);” etc.) — always the scientist. He comments on many contemporary issues as the book winds down, warmly remembering President Obama’s inauguration, dismissing the Trump policies as “divisive to our country and the world.” He calls Trump a “racist, liar, and cheat” who has “devalued Black, Brown, and Muslim lives.” Calling Trump someone who “has revealed dictatorial behavior and support of white nationalism,” Thigpen admonishes the current Republican Congress who attempt to “undo accomplishments of his predecessor, Barack Obama, the first black President of the US. President Obama’s policies,” Thigpen asserts, “helped ALL people in the country” (p. 244).

He implores us in his conclusion to each do what we can to address the many needs awaiting us as a country. “I have seen the effects of global warming. Glaciers that I visited can no longer be seen from where I saw them in 1991” (p. 198). He remembers tremendous storms in interior Florida as a young man, but notes that “today it appears that hurricanes are getting much stronger. Is this related to global warming? I believe it is, and it is something for everyone to worry about in the future” (p. 226).

He asks us to find our voices so that “all of us will rise. And our communities will be transformed from sawdust into giant, solid oak trees” (p. 295).

Final Thoughts

Near the end of the memoir, Thigpen relates lyrics from a blues song favorite, titled, “Black, Brown, and White” by Big Bill Broonzy …

“that contained so much that I have observed and experience in racial relationships — not only in the Jim Crow South but throughout my journey around the world. The lyrics consist of 5 verses about:

    1. A black person having to work for a living;
    2. Not getting served in a place (bar or other establishment, e.g. apartment, drugstore, etc.);
    3. Being ignored at an employment office;
    4. Receiving unequal pay for equal work; and,
    5. After becoming successful in one’s chosen field, being asked, ‘What are you going to do about old Jim Crow?’

Each verse ends with: ‘If you are white, should be all right; if you are brown, stick around; if you are black, get back, get back, get back.'”

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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