February 1 marked the beginning of Black History Month. Its origin trace back to 1926, when the historian Carter G. Woodson pioneered “Negro History Week” in the second week of February because it coincided with the birthdays of former US president Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (February 14). Later, during the United States Bicentennial in 1976, President Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month, reminding Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.
In last year’s post, “On Mathematical Superpowers and Black History Month“, Rachel listed some of the great posts that have been published across many of the AMS blogs and highlights “some power problems that need to be addressed to make the mathematics community a more welcoming and opportunity-filled one for Black mathematicians and students.” Last year, SIAM News highlighted some of the African American heroes in mathematics in “Celebrating Black History Month” including Mary Jackson, Charles L. Reason, J. Ernest Wilkins Jr, Annie Easley, Katherine Johnson, Elbert Frank Cox, Dorothy Vaughan, and David Blackwell. Knowing their history, the power behind their pursuit of knowledge, and the trail the left for others to follow is a way to honor their place in our community. To preserve and share the stories of African American Elders, the National Visionary Leadership Project has recorded two video series featuring interviews with David Blackwell, the first African-American member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Evelyn Granville, one of the first African-American women to earn a Doctorate in mathematics.
This month’s Notices of the AMS features articles that showcase the research and contributions of Black mathematicians to the mathematical community. In “A word from…” by Robin Wilson, he summarizes the topics covered in this issue and emphasizes that the history of Black mathematicians is a part of the history of the American Mathematical Society, one not always centered around inclusion.
“Black history is American history, and the history of Black mathematicians in the United States is a part of the history of the American Mathematical Society. As with the history of the United States, the history of the AMS has not always been one of inclusion. With this special issue in honor of Black History Month, we shine light on some of that history, as well as uplift the efforts of mathematicians and institutions to redirect this tide of history and create equity in the field.” – Robin Wilson
A piece that caught my attention was Jesse Leo Kass, “James L. Solomon and the End of Segregation at the University of South Carolina”. In the article, he provides an overview of the impact segregation had on mathematics and how James L. Solomon, a former math graduate student, was one of the first three African American students to desegregate the university in 1963.
“The professional trajectories of African American mathematicians were profoundly shaped by legalized segregation and other exclusionary policies. Not only did such measures make it difficult for African Americans to obtain a college education, but those who persevered and wanted to work as professional mathematicians faced limited job opportunities. While HBCUs employed largely African American faculty, many other universities had formal or informal policies against hiring African Americans. Moreover, those who did secure academic positions still struggled to participate fully in academic culture. The career of William Claytor vividly illustrates these challenge.” – Jesse Leo Kass
In “Black and Excellent in Math”, Haydee Lindo writes for the MAA Math Values blog about the implicit and overt aggression that students and faculty of color face and how it is a key source of disparity in black mathematical achievement. She highlights the work of Ebony McGee, in search of navigating these challenges.
“How do we make ourselves bulletproof? We can’t. […] One of the key ideas seems to be this: when we are younger our attraction to Mathematics is often fueled by external encouragement from our teachers, high scores on tests, etc. As we grow more mature, black mathematicians and engineers remain successful by progressing, “from being preoccupied with attempts to prove stereotypes wrong to adopting more self-defined reasons to achieve.” – Haydee Lindo
Lindo also emphasizes the importance of cultivating affirming environments. For example, attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), taking courses with faculty of color, attending conferences with a focus on the success of minority STEM students, and moving towards culturally sustaining pedagogies. Giving back to the community through mentorship, service, and outreach plays a huge role in preparing future generations. In “Mathematics: The Key to Empowering Tomorrow’s Workforce”, Tanya Moore describes it elegantly.
“In the African-American tradition there is a phrase, Each One, Reach One, that reflects the value of bringing along others once you have acquired a certain level of knowledge or success. In the context of the mathematics community, this value is often reflected in the math-related activities and events that happen outside the classroom to prepare the next generation for their chosen educational and career paths. As technology promises to change the way we work by altering the landscape of the labor market, mathematics will take on a new level of importance. The role of service and outreach and the willingness for Each One to Reach One to increase mathematical engagement will matter even more.” – Tanya Moore
The workforce is also changing as data plays a bigger role in many career paths and in our lives. An amazing group that has data at its center is Data for Black Lives. This group of activists, organizers, and mathematicians are “committed to the mission of using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people”. During this month, “Mathematically Gifted & Black” highlights the contributions and lives of Black mathematicians. This website was founded in December 2016 by Erica Graham, Raegan Higgins, Shelby Wilson, and Candice Price. Its name was inspired by the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” sung by Nina Simone and co-written by Weldon Irvine. I was so excited to read the profiles of the honorees of this year which so far include Asamoah Nkwanta, Felicity T. Enders, Kwame Okrah, Shea D. Burns, Kevin Corlette, Caprice Stanley, Abdul-Aziz Yakubu, Aissa Wade, Lorin Crawford, Omayra Ortega, Christopher C. Jett, and Loni Philip Tabb. What I love about this website is summarized perfectly in “The Mathematically Gifted and Black Website“:
“The power of the personal story is helping people better understand one another and shred stereotypes. The mathematicians spotlighted were able to tell their stories in their own words, to discuss their proudest moments, in mathematics and in life, and to include personal stories of struggle along with inspirational anecdotes. All were allowed to be themselves, unapologetically.”
Do you have suggestions of topics you would like us to consider covering in upcoming posts? Reach out to us in the comments below or let us know on Twitter! You can find me at @MissVRiveraQ.