In 1724, 14-year-old Thomas Fuller was brought to America as a slave. He was famous for being quick at mental calculations but never learned to read or write. Benjamin Banneker, born to free Black parents in Maryland in 1731, taught himself surveying, astronomy, and mathematics, publishing almanacs and devising mathematical puzzles in his journals.
Erica Walker, a professor* of mathematics education at Teachers College, Columbia University, opens her book Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence with the contrast between these two mathematically inclined Black men who lived around the same time but in very different circumstances. For the book, Walker interviewed Black mathematicians who got their Ph.Ds from the 1940s through the present day about their formation as mathematicians. As the contrast between Fuller’s and Banneker’s lives indicates and Walker emphasizes, Black mathematicians, like mathematicians in general, are not a monolith, and no one narrative represents all of their experiences. Walker’s book explores some of the different paths that successful Black mathematicians have taken into the profession.
Reading the book, I was struck not only by how diverse the paths into mathematics were but the barriers, large and small, that Black people have faced and continue to face in mathematics. I was aware of these in the abstract, but two stories in particular put a human face on the barriers. In the mid-twentieth century, William Claytor could not stay at the hotel where an MAA meeting was being held. Even after explicit segregation like that was outlawed, he was too hurt to attend any more meetings. Raymond Johnson, who got his Ph.D. at Rice University (coincidentally also my graduate alma mater) and is now back in the math department there, was one of the first African American students at Rice. In 1963, two Rice alumni sued to keep him out of the school, as the charter specified that it was for “the white citizens of Texas.” The “citizens of Texas” part had already been reinterpreted more broadly, but for some mysterious reason (*cough*white supremacy*cough*), the race barrier was slower to come down. These stories stood out to me because they are so ugly, but the book is filled with many other stories, both positive and negative, of the experiences of Black mathematicians over several generations.
Dr. Walker graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her research over email. In addition to these questions, she helped me compile a list of resources for learning more about Black mathematicians that I've posted on the American Mathematical Society Blog on Math Blogs.
Evelyn Lamb: What motivated you to write Beyond Banneker? Did your motivations or the message you wanted to convey change as you worked on it?
Erica Walker: Several ideas I'd been having about mathematics, and mathematics learning, all came together. First, I was really interested in the idea of 'academic communities' that support mathematics learning and engagement, based on research I had done with high school students in New York City. I thought it'd be interesting to learn how this concept might be at work in the lives of mathematicians. Secondly I have a deep interest in history and biography, and I wanted to talk to some mathematicians about what it was like to enter mathematics at a time when Black Americans were barred from many institutions—in some states even gaining access to secondary school was nearly impossible. There were some key mathematicians whose stories I thought just needed to be known, and hadn't yet been told.
Thirdly I think the popular image that most people have of mathematicians is of an older, white man. I knew this wasn't the only representation, but it seemed that most teachers and students I worked with thought that this was it. I wanted to document the lives and experiences of a number of Black mathematicians, past and present, so that everyone could know a more complete picture—and I would no longer get some variation of the response "Are there any?" when I told people I was doing a research study exploring the mathematical lives of Black mathematicians. It's simply ahistorical and incorrect to think of mathematicians as a monolithic group. Black mathematicians’ experiences and contributions are important narratives in mathematics, mathematics education, the history of mathematics, and the history of education in the United States. In a way, I wanted to write something that could contribute to the historical record on mathematics in this country.
EL: There are so many compelling stories in the book. Is there a story or image that stood out to you when you were researching and writing it?
EW: What a marvelous question. As you know, the book is organized into themes—and while some themes seem very natural—for example, the kinships and communities theme, which focuses on early childhood learning experiences, other themes were suggested by the stories that mathematicians told me. One key image was the notion of borders—in the book I use the Mason-Dixon line as a kind of metaphor for all of the borders that Black mathematicians have crossed historically, and that some still continue to find themselves facing. As a mathematics educator, I also really wanted to shed some light on the mathematics education of these amazing people—and how their rich and varied stories about doing math in and out of school could positively influence how we help young people engage in mathematics today.
EL: What is something you wish White people understood about the experiences of Black mathematicians in the US?
Well, I think something I mentioned earlier—the notion of "are there any?”—is a belief that quite a few people seem to have. In the preface of Beyond Banneker I write about an experience I had with a fellow researcher in education (not at Teachers College or Columbia!), and how it helped to propel me to do the research—and to write a book about the work I was doing. (I mean initially, this project was just going to result in a series of journal articles, but the mathematicians' experiences merit much more than that. They merit more than Beyond Banneker, which is why several ideas that emerged from my continuing analysis of data collected for that book are appearing in my ongoing research.)
At any rate, in terms of this myth about there being no Black mathematicians I suspect that it's partially because most of our popular culture representations of mathematicians look a certain way. But I think it’s also because people just aren’t really seeing the Black mathematicians who have been around and have made contributions to mathematics—not just in academia, but also in industry and government and other fields. I think that everyone should understand that there is a rich tradition of Black mathematical excellence, but that there are still challenges related to racist attitudes and practices that some Black people in mathematics have faced, and continue to face. Finally there are many successful Black mathematicians, to be sure, but there are other stories I heard from mathematicians where people were thwarted in their pursuit of mathematics. It wasn't because they weren't good, or they were weak, or 'sensitive', but because there were some real challenges to their continuing in the field—or really, even entering the field—that had nothing to do with their mathematical talent.
4. You write in the conclusion chapter "Black women mathematicians, unlike their White female counterparts, for the most part report little challenge to their mathematics pursuit until they arrived in graduate school mathematics programs." Can you elaborate on that? Do you think this experience is different for Black and White women, or is it a matter of us not getting to hear as many stories of Black women who do face those challenges because many of them leave mathematics?
Certainly. I suppose in this case I was speaking about the Black women mathematicians I interviewed—who, by definition in terms of how I designed the study, are all 'successful' mathematicians—they all have acquired their PhD in mathematics. In the vast majority of their stories, they experienced little challenge to their mathematical identities, which were largely positive, until they got to graduate school. So you're right—it’s possible that this group is a special group, not representative of the larger population where Black girls might face negative feedback in earlier years about their math abilities, but I don't think so.
Until very recently national data showed that Black girls had more positive attitudes towards mathematics than White girls, and my own dissertation research showed that controlling for key background and school factors, Black girls were more likely to persist in advanced mathematics courses than White girls were. The research suggests that White girls are faced with these low expectations of their math ability much earlier. In my classes at Teachers College, when we talk about these issues, it seems that Black women and White women, both very successful in math, report having different socialization experiences in their adolescence. These are ideas I plan to pursue in future research.
EL: I am a white person who wishes math were more welcoming for people of color. I am torn between wanting to *do* something and not wanting to step in and act like I know what's best for a community I am not a part of. Are there things I and people like me should be actively doing in our communities or at a national level to help? How can we do this in a way that does not veer into White Savior Complex territory?
A fascinating question and I appreciate your asking it. I want to highlight, first, that the experiences of Black mathematicians are not monolithic. I hope I’ve captured the breadth of their varied professional and educational experiences with math in Beyond Banneker. Secondly, when the broader math community was, shall we say, less than welcoming, Black mathematicians formed organizations and networks to ensure that fellow Blacks felt welcome in the field and persisted in being as active as they could in the broader community.
That said, with regard to the present, a question that Dr Edray Goins, the president of NAM (the National Association of Mathematicians), recently asked via social media--and I hope I'm paraphrasing him accurately—was how often, if at all, do departments of mathematics invite Black mathematicians to give talks at their institutions? This kind of visibility and engagement is very important, at the institution level and also nationally, in terms of organization leadership and conference speakers. But it's also about identifying and working with talented Black mathematics students at multiple levels. There are numerous examples of mathematicians, including White mathematicians, who have actively worked with and championed their Black mathematics graduate students. It's all about supporting initiatives, again at all levels, that seek to attract, recruit, and retain Black mathematics students—for example, supporting department level initiatives, being willing and committed to serving as a good colleague, mentor, or advisor, and being aware of, supportive of, and perhaps involved in programs that are already in existence, and frankly, have been around a long time.
Organizations like NAM and CAARMS do all kinds of activities and programs that support Black mathematicians and Black mathematics students. These programs, other well-designed university based programs, and initiatives like EDGE, based on my research, are of tremendous value to the mathematics research community. In addition, the broader mathematics community should be committed to ensuring that there is equal access to mathematics in our schools. For example, at the secondary level, I am really concerned about the limited availability of advanced math courses in certain schools. I think mathematicians and mathematics educators alike should really be vocal about this inequity, and active in doing something about it.
*This post has been updated to correct an error. Dr. Walker is a professor, not an associate professor.