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#BlackBrilliance Blog, Section 1: Cultural-Historical Perspectives

Yes, this is 6 days late, but it’s summer, so I’m hoping you’ll all forgive me.

So there is a schedule in my last post, but I’m going to screw it all up. This post got real long, real fast, so I’m just going to do 5 separate posts for the 5 sections of the book. I’ll do Section 2 tomorrow. Y’all do whatever works for you.

Before I get started, I’d like to just talk briefly about my current feelings towards the tome. And it does feel like that a bit to me – even though it’s a collection of essays from a number of authors, knowing Dr. Danny Martin (I’m less familiar with Jacqueline Leonard, his co-editor) I guess I expected the book to not exactly be a “summer read”. Dr. Martin is a brilliant speaker and author, but his works are always challenging reads and demand full attention. That’s partially why this post is late – I’ve needed to find dedicated time to read any of these essays.

Blackbrilliance section 2Now on the content. This post is going to cover just section I from the book. At least for this post, I expect it to be a bit of a “blow-by-blow” of the essays and my reactions to them. I know not everyone is getting through this reading and I’d like to invite all of y’all to participate in the knowledge shared.

Essay 1: The History, Brilliance, and Legacy of Benjamin Banneker Revisited by Jacqueline Leonard and Cheryl Lewis Beverly

It will be no surprise to anyone that the first essay on Benjamin Banneker hit home in a lovely, “hell yeah!” way. I’ve been working on introducing my students to the brilliance of non-white-men mathematicians for years, so this love song to Banneker was a welcome one. Aside from his brilliance, I was hit hardest by how outspoken Banneker was on the evils of slavery.

Writing to Thomas Jefferson,

“[Banneker] urgently requested that slavery be abolished, arguing passionately and authoritatively on behalf of Blacks because Jefferson had been consistently critical of the intelligence of Negroes. Banneker suggested that any dismissing of African talents, skills and abilities by European Americans was a direct consequence of enslavement and not Black’s inability to perform.” p. 12

This is a whopper of a quote and hit me hard. In the first, because I think of all the folk, myself included, who are occasionally afraid to speak out on racism today because we’re worried about how things will be received. Folk are constantly saying they aren’t sure about talking about this stuff in class because they’re worried about the reaction of students, parents, principals etc. Yet here is A BLACK MAN in the ERA OF SLAVE CATCHERS AND KIDNAPPINGS speaking to THOMAS FREAKING JEFFERSON about abolishing the largest institution in the country because it’s evil. The ramifications for him if something went badly were being lynched or becoming enslaved. And his family did suffer. During his funeral, his family’s home was burnt down – likely arson. Then here’s the kicker, p. 17, made me want to cry, from oral histories, we know that “He [Bannker] was frequently shot at,” by members of his community. Lynchings are of course, evil and abhorrent, but for some reason the idea that Banneker was SHOT at, and today is the 2 year anniversary of Philando Castille being murdered by gunshot just makes me sick. Yet he still spoke out. And I’m worried about a parent email? Shame on me. We have no excuses, fam.

The second reason that italicized quote hit me digs into the second essay. America has made education for Blacks so impossible and so much harder for so long. Jefferson thought Black people were intellectually inferior because of what he saw – but of course you’re going to have less intellectual output from a people who are actively denied education.

[UPDATE: Marian Dingle offered a really thoughtful critique of this in the comments below which I think deserves to be highlighted in the piece here: “It’s not that their intellectual output was less, it is that it was hidden/stolen/erased/unpublished. Descendants of enslaved were denied the education that was provided to other citizens, but relied on their own inherent intelligence to provide it for themselves. “Intellectual output” and “education” often look different to different racial groups, which I think is part of the problem.”]

Banneker was singing the song of so many folks doing the work – the “achievement gap” (a phrase I hate more and more each day) is rooted in the fact that America insists on denying equitable education to the Black community. Enter Robert Berry.

Essay 2A Critical Review of American K-12 Mathematics Education, 1900-Present by Robert Q. Berry III, Holly Henderson Pinter, and Oren L. McClain

I keep thinking that I’m getting there. That I have a better picture of what’s going on, what the history is, and maybe where we’re going. And then something that seems SO UTTERLY BASIC comes along and show me just how little I really know.

I’ve learned over the past year more about Brown v. Board. I know that contributed hugely to the closing of Black schools and the ousting of amazing Black teachers in favor of their White counterparts, to the great detriment of the whole dang community. What I didn’t know (maybe suspected, but maybe I’m just hoping to look better here) was just how vindictive the White community has been toward Black education.

Berry, Pinter and McClain’s essay is basically a step by step through education for the last century or so, but done so with such careful thought toward how it’s all affected Black children that I’m now looking for who’s done this for Latinx, Native, and LGBT communities, too. Here are just a few things that stuck out to me:

Black parents and community leaders sought desegregation primarily to secure greater access to educational and related resources. They did not seek desegregation because they felt that Black children deeded to sit with White children to be educated. p. 30

This confirmed what I know about Brown v. Board, but I appreciated that it put into words clearly that it was about resources, not necessarily about integration. That is emphatically not the story I have long been told about Brown v. Board, and reinforces my growing understanding that for so long in our country, “white” has been the standard. When I really sit to digest that, it’s staggering how detrimental that mentality is to all communities non-White, and for the White community, how much of a barrier that creates toward greater understanding and breaking down biases. It’s something I constantly struggle to remind myself of.

“When county officials found out [that the Black high school, Dawson, offered content beyond geometry and Algebra II], they blocked Dawson from teaching the course. According to Dawson, “They cut it out until the White school could establish the course and catch up with us. That’s how determined White folks were to be better than we were”. p 32

“The consequence of lowered expectations coupled with the systematic design to diminish access to rigorous studies in mathematics appears to have had generational negative impacts on Black children.” p.33

“In schools where significant numbers of Black children were bused, these children experience resegregation for their mathematics instruction. In fact 70% of school districts had racially identifiable classrooms as a result of ability grouping resegregation.” p 34

These are the quotes that most stick out to me before the authors continued to explain how what followed was the era of No Child Left Behind, testing where Black students were confirmed to be inferior to their White counter parts, and we see the birth of the “achievement” gap. Well, no shit. Take away their teachers, deny them the ability to teach and learn advanced material, resegregate them in schools and of course students will do poorly compared to their White (read: “American standard”) counterparts. The most important phrase here is GENERATIONAL NEGATIVE IMPACTS. 

All of this is to say that really, there is absolutely no excuse for us to not address racial equity in our classes. Look around your school. Who’s in what classes? Then ask students that question. They know it better than we do.

Finally, and I’m repeating myself here, but it’s worth doing:

Efforts such as NCLB…often drive research agendas that situate Black children as deficient…The implicit message is that Black children are not worth studying in their own right and that a comparison group is necessary. Such framing situates Whiteness as the norm, positioning Black children and Black culture as deviant. p. 45

Hence, this book.

Essay 3: The Mathematical Lives of Black Children by Maisie L. Gholson

This essay explores how the actual lives of Black children interplay with their lives as mathematicians. She dives into how skin color, both Black v White, but also Light v Dark affects a child’s understanding of the world. She touches on what pop culture representation does to their world view, citing one Black man sharing that seeing a Black mathematics major on A Different World normalized for him that being a Black math major was okay.

There are so many examples that I cannot repeat them here, but essentially, the essay goes into how all aspects of a Black child’s life contribute to their view of them as mathematicians. How the curriculum addresses or fails to address them, how Black teachers impact them, how the rhetoric around standardized testing impacts their learning by emphasizing that drill and kill, multiple choice mathematics is where all energy should be thrown.

Throughout the essay are peppered stories of a Mrs. Gant – who has a positive view of mathematics and her role in it. It’s a beautiful story of how each of these things can be used against or for the positive association of mathematics. Mrs. Gant loved mathematics, and believed strongly in her aptitude and brilliance within it, partially because she had Black teachers to encourage and welcome her, felt genuine success in the subject, and to my fervent delight refused to believe in the “achievement gap”. She reasons, wonderfully, in talking with the author that if there is a smaller proportion of black students represented, the ratios of students failing can be more impactful.

Mrs. Gant disavowed the inferiority of Blacks in mathematics using a mathematical argument. Black students’ inability to do mathematics is inconceivable to Mrs. Gant. p. 70

I have often found through this past year of reading in the MTBoS book club, how different all of our perceptions would be if we actually sat down and talked with individuals. Our society is so currently obsessed with testing and numbers that we fail to see individuals. We put faith in these extraordinarily flawed tests and condemn a huge portion of our society without seeing the historical background that led to these ridiculous numbers. I believe in the brilliance of Black children in mathematics, because I have experienced it in my students. Very few of my fellow White Americans have that experience so they believe the news. I wonder how we might change some of that, and am so grateful to things like “Hidden Figures” for popularizing #blackBrilliance.

More to come, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE comment, push back, ask questions or anything. Comments are open, so is my twitter (@anniek_p).

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