Black History Must Include African Math History

My first year in a public school, as a sixth-grader, was a learning curve. 

My previous experiences with private schooling and homeschooling did not prepare me for what public schooling entailed. All at once, I had to adjust to middle school, new grading scales, approaches to standardized tests and classroom culture.

My math teacher was adamant about preparing us for our springtime standardized assessments and used various mediums to strengthen our strategic thinking.

During the prep weeks leading up to the tests, I’ll never forget how she removed all of our traditional breaktime board games, keeping only games to exercise our minds in the math space, like the 24 game and mancala.

Mancala’s rich African roots drew me to the game. I remember telling my parents about it and eventually showing them how to play it at my school's math night.

That year, my parents gave it to me for Christmas, and I was able to utilize strategy at home while playing with my family.

If my teacher hadn't included that piece of African history in our assessment study, I’m not sure I would ever have known what the game was or how significant it was to my own culture.

African Math History Should Be Treated As Math History

It is no longer acceptable for teachers not to see math education as a space for acknowledging Black history. Black History Month provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to engage students in math’s Black history and make a monumental difference in their learning.

Math holds a privileged and prioritized place in the school curriculum because it is applicable and can crossover easily in other content areas. It can be contextualized – just like Black history.

Math has always held crucial importance throughout the continent of Africa, but this fact hasn’t been reinforced in schools and colleges elsewhere. 

However, inclusive classrooms consider the context of Black mathematicians and incorporate that history to focus on comprehensive learning. Students benefit not just from learning math formulas, but from understanding the context and nature of the field, as well as the leaps and strides that have been made since the earliest applications of math.

Revamping a curriculum can be intimidating. But acknowledging the Black history of math doesn’t have to be viewed that way. Ethnic studies in math is important, but African math practices are translated all over the world today and have manifested in so many ways that it should be viewed as standard history. 

For example, the oldest known mathematical artifact is a bone from the Lebombo mountains in Eswatini and South Africa that dates back to 35,000 BC. The Lebombo bone resembles the calendar sticks that are still used for making tallies in Namibia. 

According to “The Universal Book of Mathematics,” the Lebombo bone’s 29 notches could have been used as a lunar phase counter, which suggests African women may have been the first mathematicians, because tracking menstrual cycles requires a lunar calendar.

While math history is not included in the math standards across curriculums, the anecdote of the Lebombo bone is one of many capturing the intersection between math and African culture that can personalize a student’s learning experience. Using a storytelling approach to teaching African history in math is a practical way for teachers to blend this into their regular curriculum. 

To cultivate students’ collective learning, teachers can start small, by sharing anecdotes or reviewing cultural facts of the day. Discussing the history of African weaving and including a demonstration of textiles in geometry classes can also boost morale and hands-on learning into the classroom.

Numbers are a powerful tool in African culture, so sharing the long histories of various methods of counting in numerical order is a fun activity for early math learners. 

As I learned years ago, African games with a math foundation, like mancala, are another way to bring African math culture to light. 

Developing Math Identity Through Representation

Culturally affirming practices validate and celebrate Black knowledge. When students know about the history of math in this context, it not only brings them a new respect for African culture but a stronger connection to it. Black students see their own history reflected in the origins of math.

Including that history disrupts negative stereotypes that have been associated with Black-diasporan students. Moreover, this reminds all students of the importance of math in Africa and opens minds about who is at the center of knowledge.

Teaching African History In Math Contributes To An Antiracist Practice

Historically, there has been a lack of teaching about African influence or worse, erroneous teaching about the continent’s contributions to learning, particularly in math. 

Math has often been taught as something students need to conquer, distanced from lived experience, rather than by learning about the lives of mathematicians and understanding that math arises from the meaning of life we create for ourselves.

When teachers accurately present the African history of mathematics, it introduces a human practice. Math comes out of the stories of life and real people, who have grappled with trying to understand our physical environment and made sense of it through numbers and logical thinking.

If students were taught that math is something created by people to help people understand their surroundings, it would be much more human and result in a better growth mindset associated with math.

Connecting this concept for students is indeed a part of an antiracist practice, and resources exist to help teachers who want to make their classrooms more inclusive of African math history.

Trinity Alicia
Trinity Alicia is an editorial intern at EdPost based in Boston. Having studied journalism, film and Spanish at San Diego State University, Alicia has versatile experience in print, public relations and multimedia that she brings to the EdPost team. In her free time, she enjoys live music and bicoastal traveling.

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