A Dream Deferred: 50 years of Blacks in Mathematics

I had the great pleasure of being present for Edray Goins’ MAA Invited Address, “A Dream Deferred: 50 Years of Blacks in Mathematics”, Thursday morning from 9 to 9:50am. This talk was a beautiful combination of history and mathematics, and a great reminder that however far we think we have come, the reality is that Black mathematicians are still vastly underrepresented in the mathematical sciences. (Full disclosure, Edray is my friend, he is a fellow Number Theorist, and he even was a fellow blogger at my other blogging home, the inclusion/exclusion blog).

Edray Goins. Photo by Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography.

Goins split the talk in two parts, a historical survey of the last 50 years of Black mathematicians, and a survey of their mathematics. I must admit that I was much more interested in the historical part, but also because much of the mathematics was actually not well-known to me. However, I think that it is truly impressive that Goins actually worked on giving a very accessible talk on mathematics that is also NOT his area of expertise.

The first part was part history of the first Blacks to get PhDs in mathematics, and part history of NAM (the National Association for Mathematicians). NAM was actually born at a JMM in New Orleans in 1969, when 17 underrepresented mathematicians got together and decided they needed to create an organization that made supporting other underrepresented people their priority (so far the AMS had NOT been cooperative in this sense). To this day, the mission of NAM states two main priorities:

  1. promoting excellence in the mathematical sciences and
  2. promoting the mathematical development of all underrepresented minorities.

Goins said that all of this is based on a principle from Kwanzaa, Kujichagulia, which means “self-determination” — the idea that you should help yourself and your own. From the article I linked to, it “means to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves and not the opposite such as being defined and named by” others. I found this idea both lovely and powerful.

He then went on to talk about the Black mathematicians who opened paths for others: Woodard, Talbot, Blackwell, Claytor, Lofton Haynes, Boyd Granville, and Browne. 

Goins proceeded to describe the mathematics of these accomplished mathematicians, and described the work and successes of some contemporary Black mathematicians as well. I found this to be extremely generous, since Goins has dome some excellent work of his own, and yet he used this platform to highlight the work of others. I think it’s a wonderful example of Kujichagulia.

But the question “where do we go from here?” still hangs in the air for me. Edray showed us a statistic that could be seeing as good: the number of Black PhDs in math doubled in the last fifty years…. but it went from 1 to 2 % (approximately). This is a far cry from the number of Blacks in the US — around 12%. So when people talk abut underrepresentation, this is what it means — if math really is a fair and inclusive field, the number of Blacks doing mathematics should represent the number of Blacks in the total US population. We are so far faiilng miserably at being fair and inclusive in this sense, and there is not lack of talent as Edray points out in his talk.

We can and should do better. Thank you, Edray, for taking time to enlighten us, and to uplift and elevate the work of some great, and sometimes overlooked, mathematicians.

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