Cultural Erasure: Is Math Teaching Whitewashing Black Genius?

Feb 7, 2024 2:39:53 PM

by Dr. Assata Moore

In the vast, intricate quilt of mathematical history, the contributions of Black minds are hidden from sight when, instead, they should be some of its most vibrant threads. And when we sideline the achievements of Black scholars and innovators, that sends a clear message to children: Black people lack mathematical genius. This falsehood is another facet of cultural erasure.

There's an unnerving trend in math education that seems to glorify primarily white Western male contributors while minimizing or excluding African and African-American contributions.

A prominent Black scholar in math education, Dr. Danny Martin, poignantly stated, "Mathematical success for Black learners is often perceived as the exception, not the norm." This sentiment becomes more academically and socially harmful when exhibited in the aggressive policy stances taken by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who seem intent on fighting a term they have hijacked, "wokeness," by aggressively chopping away the already limited representation of Black figures in educational content.

History should factor into the math curriculum! Historical accounts tell stories of Greek scholars traveling to Egypt, learning from Black Egyptians, and then bringing that knowledge back to Greece. Names like Thales, Pythagoras, and Plato are staples in Western education, but how often do we credit the Black Egyptian scholars from whom they drew inspiration and knowledge? How many people know that Pythagoras studied in Egypt for over 20 years and did not develop the “Pythagorean Theorem”? This narrative distortion is one example of many that stack up over time to be a monument of injustice to the legacy of Black mathematicians.

The impact of representation cannot be overstated. In China, students grow up learning about the contributions of Chinese scholars, instilling a sense of pride and belonging. When speaking about the importance of Indian children learning about Indian mathematicians in a paper entitled, “History of Indian Mathematics and its Implications for Mathematics Education,” by K. Ramasubramanian of The Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay states, “making the students aware of the major achievements of their own ancestors — particularly in their impressionable age — is quite likely to boost their self-confidence and also provide the necessary motivation in building a self-reliant nation.”

Imagine the weight on a Black child's psyche, sitting in a classroom inundated with tales of great white male scholars in mathematics and other STEM fields. At the same time, history teachers tell them that their ancestors were “merely slaves” — only victims, never trailblazers.

The resulting cognitive dissonance can stunt academic growth and self-esteem — attributes that are especially difficult to nurture in a student's math skills development. Asa Hilliard, the late renowned African-American professor, put it succinctly: "Our history does not begin with slavery, and our heritage is not limited to poverty and discrimination."

To correct this distortion, a paradigm shift is needed. Solutions exist in literature written by and for math educators and programs such as BlackMathGenius.com, which puts Black children at the center of learning.

Introducing students to Black contributors in mathematical history restores a stolen legacy (George G. M. James rings a bell?). A holistic approach to math education recognizes that numbers are universal, and how we teach and talk about them should resonate with every student. It’s crucial to make this distinction as the anti-woke oafs will quickly argue, “So, now math can be racist?” No, Greg and Ron, it cannot!

While the title of this piece may seem provocative, it stands on a foundation of historical truths and confronts the persistent “fake news” machine. Math education can be an instrument of empowerment and recognition if we address cultural erasure. It's past time we teach math that represents and respects all its contributors.

Dr. Assata Moore

Assata Moore is educator and author who advocates for educating young Black children, using math as the driving force. She believes in the supreme intelligence of Black children because she has seen it time and time again. As a teacher and principal, she traveled the world teaching other teachers how to teach Mathematics, physics, and engineering in a fun and engaging way; effective leadership; and systems and strategies for running a successful school. She has a Mathematics degree from Michigan State University where she also served as the program coordinator. In 2009, she was voted one of the top Mathematics teachers in the state of Illinois and, under the Obama Administration, Assata received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. In 2015, under the direction of Michelle Obama, she revisited the White House for a college conference initiative. Her workshops and speaking engagements are what she calls, “EduAction”. You will be educated and you will put that learning into action.

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