In the words of Clark Atlanta University professor Chike Akua, Black children are “victims of cultural identity theft. Someone has stolen their identity of excellence, intelligence and achievement and made them believe they're supposed to be pimps, playas, thugs and criminals. Identity determines activity. Education, therefore, is about identity restoration.”
Black students are subject to cultural identity theft through appropriation and erasure. For instance, Black students go through their entire K-12 schooling learning about mathematical theorems, formulas and algorithms named after Greek mathematicians but never learn that the majority of those mathematical concepts originated from ancient Kemet, which we now call Egypt.
The earliest foundations of arithmetic, algebra and geometry can be found in the Rhind Papyrus, which was named after Alexander Henry Rhind, a white Scottish archaeologist but actually written by a Kemetian scribe named Ahmes. Contrary to popular belief, the Pythagorean Theorem that we all learned in math class growing up was actually not created by Pythagoras. The earliest version of the theorem found in the Berlin Papyrus was written in Kemet sometime between 1990 BC and 1640 BC and well over 1,000 years before Pythagoras was born.
Unless these students are fortunate enough to come from homes where their parents teach them this invisible history or they go on to study ethnomathematics at the university level, these are facts they will never learn during their K-12 years.
Undoing the Racial Hierarchy of Math Classrooms
Based on his extensive research on the math identities of Black students, Danny Bernard Martin, professor of education and mathematics at University of Illinois-Chicago, posits that there exists a racial hierarchy of mathematical ability where white and Asian students are positioned at the top while Black students are placed at the bottom, along with Indigenous and Latinx students.
Considering that a lot of Black students internalize these racialized perceptions about their math ability, just knowing their ancestors in Kemet were the originators of mathematical reasoning should help to boost their confidence and reframe their thinking about their ability to learn math.
The cultural pride that they could gain from learning about the historical contributions of Raye Montague, Thomas Fuller, Benjamin Banneker, Bob Moses, Euphemia Lofton Haynes and so many other great Black mathematicians could convince them that math doesn’t stand for “Mental Abuse to Humans,”as my middle school students routinely used to say.
Legislative Efforts to Spur Change
The prevalence of cultural identity theft within our education system is why, over the past few years, several Black policymakers within the U.S. House and Senate have pushed legislation that would mandate the truthful teaching of the nation’s history of racism and white supremacy.
In 2020, former Ohio Congresswoman and present-day HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge introduced the “Black History is American History” bill, which would mandate that K-16 schools include Black history within their teaching of American history in K-12 schools and for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to include Black history in its tests.
The following year, New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a former educator, introduced the African-American History Act. Through this act, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture would receive $10 million over the next five years to continue expanding its work in supporting Black history education programs that are voluntarily available for educators and students.
A major part of this work includes designing professional development opportunities to help K-12 teachers build their capacity on Black history education and increasing awareness of Black history through a social justice and anti-bias lens by engaging the public with programming, social media and other supplementary learning resources.
Even though there’s been a more aggressive push (at the federal level) for the inclusion of Black history in K-12 schools, it still hasn’t translated to enough schools across the nation prioritizing the need for Black history as a requirement within the history curriculum.
In order to truly make this a reality, it will take collective efforts to place pressure on local and state legislators to support these bills. By reversing the erasure of Black history within the math curriculum, we are not only restoring the cultural identities of our Black math students, but we are also letting them know that their humanity matters.