When they first appeared in 1749, buzzing deafeningly, the terrified 17-year-old Benjamin Banneker vainly tried to kill them, so they wouldn’t ruin the family farm in Ellicott Mills (now Ellicott City). But they multiplied, covering the ground and trees like the eighth plague of Biblical locusts. The insects were not locusts, but cicadas, with black bodies and striking red eyes.
In his hand-written account, Banneker described them as “short-lived but merry” and their loud mating calls as “singing.” He recorded how the female used her sharp tail to bore a hole in young twigs to lay eggs that mature into the nymphs that fell to the ground. They burrowed down to hibernate without, he noted, causing any serious damage to plants or animals.
Banneker, who was Black, was born free in 1731, though his father had been formerly enslaved. This year, 2021, the 17-year-cicada brood X will emerge exactly 290 years after his birth (17 cycles of 17 years), so we will likely experience descendants of the same brood in 15 states ranging from Maryland to Ohio. Banneker’s wonderment at this event and other natural phenomena led him to become the first recognized African-American scientist.
Banneker never married and lived modestly and reclusively on the farm bequeathed by his father. He rented out his land and developed a habit of working deep into the night on astronomical and mathematical calculations and spending his days sleeping. He thus pursued his lifelong passion for academic inquiry largely isolated from the enslaved society around him. His scientific reputation grew among local friends as well as international correspondents who likely had no idea of his race. Though rarely venturing far, he still experienced racial intolerance. One historical account describes him standing outside his cabin when someone riding by shot at him — the colonial equivalent of a drive-by shooting. Unhurt, he calmly observed to his companion that the clatter of the pellets against the cabin came later than the report of the gun showing that sound traveled faster than buckshot.
A time came late in life for Banneker’s wide-ranging intellect to emerge, cicada-like, into the surrounding landscape. Banneker was concerned that the dire situation of Black people was justified by the false assertion that they had limited mental capabilities. At the age of 60, he began to publish widely read farm almanacs, one of the few books commonly found in early American agrarian households.
Banneker’s Almanacs, filled with complex celestial calculations and reference information, served, the publishers trumpeted in the introduction, as “proofs” that people of color could produce “works of genius.” But looking at these books today, an even more profound purpose is evident. He shrewdly designed the books so that each page of almanac content was faced by a page of essays filled with his own enlightened thoughts on a wide variety of topics for the new country. He proposed a Department of Peace (equal to the Department of War), universal childhood education and ending the death penalty. But the most passionate essays he added to his almanacs addressed the horrors of slavery and racial prejudice. Interestingly, these were not from his own pen, but rather the writings or orations of British Prime Minister William Pitt, third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, poets William Cowper and Thomas Wilkinson, and other prominent individuals. He thus gave wide voice to calls for racial justice, but deftly avoided personal attributions and backlash. America’s leading Black intellectual of the time invented his own way to bring his views on racial justice to public attention.
Banneker went even further to use his books to fight slavery and racial intolerance. He famously sent an Almanac copy to Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, with a letter in which he bravely asserted that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were not provided to African Americans and that Jefferson bore guilt for these circumstances. Jefferson agreed in a return letter and later took the first steps toward ending slavery by outlawing the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
As the 17th cycle of cicadas since Banneker’s birth emerges soon, I believe, as a scientist, that the cicadas, the pandemic, global warming and so many natural events will spark the curiosity of young people of all ethnicities and races. Whether or not they have the chance to pursue academic achievements will depend on the opportunities and social climate we provide to them. It is Banneker’s legacy and our challenge to achieve racial equality so we can harvest the richness of these intellects and create a more fulfilling life for all of us.
Dr. Michael Lenardo (email@example.com) is a research scientist in immunology and a member of the National Academies of Medicine and Science.