Black Students Seeing Themselves As Mathematicians – and All Students Learning About Black Mathematicians

by | 03.15.22

Dr. Kristopher Childs is an educator, speaker and consultant based in Winter Garden, FL. Connect with him on Twitter @DrKChilds.

As educators, we all want our students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum they learn at school. But I’ve found that representation isn’t always given a lot of consideration in the math classroom. That’s why I care so much about making sure our Black students see themselves in the mathematics experience. 

When we look for examples of mathematicians in our curriculums, we rarely, if ever, find a Black mathematician, and students rarely hear about the significant mathematical developments that occurred on the African continent. This is a big problem. Fundamentally, that lack of representation is dehumanizing for our students – as well as on a larger social scale. That lack of representation can convey to Black students the message that they don’t have a place in math. When we as educators allow that gap to remain in our curriculum, we’re missing the chance to show our students of color all the ways that they matter and belong. 

So for my fellow educators wondering how to include Black history in our math curriculum all year long, I’ve compiled this Black Mathematician Month resource. It’s designed to highlight the accomplishments of Black mathematicians and give context to some of the major technological achievements that would not have been possible without them.

In the past, I’ve tweeted out the mathematicians one at a time during Black History Month, to highlight their achievements for educator peers. Some of my colleagues have chosen to share these as slides during lessons, while others have printed these as individual posters and displayed them in the hallways of their building. 

You can download the presentation here in whatever format suits your classes best. Inside you’ll meet Black mathematicians like: 

  • Dr. Gladys West, whose contributions to technological breakthroughs in the 1950s and 1960s earned her a place in the United States Air Force Hall of Fame
  • Dr. Christine Darden, NASA engineer and leader of the Sonic Boom Group, and one of the famed NASA “human computers”
  • Dr. Emery N. Brown, medical engineering and computational neuroscience professor at MIT, whose research has shaped new understanding of how anesthetics act in the brain
  • YOUR STUDENTS! With all due respect to the great mathematicians featured throughout this resource, the ones featured on the last slide are – in my opinion – the best. Because the last slide simply shows a mirror. 

Any student looking at this slide can practice seeing themselves as a mathematician – without assuming that they have to have certain features or fit into a specific box. That’s a powerful moment in every student’s journey with mathematics, and it’s always a joyful thing to witness. 

While representation like this is affirming and necessary for Black students, we can’t forget that it’s necessary for white students too. When we shy away from uplifting the simple presence of Black people in our subject areas – let alone their accomplishments – we rob white students of the chance to become culturally aware and culturally competent human beings. And that omission is dehumanizing for them as well. 

Above all, remember to support this kind of learning beyond the month of February.

Many people don’t know this, but February was chosen as Black History Month because it marks the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. But February, the shortest month of the year, was never meant to contain the fullness of Black history and the immense contributions of Black scholars, scientists, leaders and everyday people to American life and culture. Instead, February was intended as a dedicated celebration of what we learned about Black history throughout the entire year. So remember that as you enjoy this resource. Thank you so much for sharing it with your students.

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