In a recent conversation with my sister, we both expressed frustration that my niblets’ (i.e., children of my sibling) 3rd grade teacher had yet to recognize February as Black history month. This is unacceptable. Students should learn about Black history throughout the year. It is an integral part of understanding history and current social issues. But, at the very least, students should learn Black history in February.
It also occurred to me that my niblets’ teacher is not alone. There are many classrooms where Black history is ignored, and especially in mathematics classrooms. Teachers may not see mathematics education as the space to celebrate Black history. But that also is unacceptable. Black history is just as important in mathematics as it is in social studies and humanities, and especially because mathematics holds a privileged place in the school curriculum (i.e., it is prioritized over other subjects), mathematics teachers have a responsibility to acknowledge and engage students with Black history and mathematics.
Here are some ideas for celebrating Black history in mathematics by learning about Black mathematicians and their work…during February or anytime!
Black mathematicians in history
Banneker lived as a free African American during the late 18th century in the United States. He wrote almanacs and worked as a surveyor. Among other accomplishments, he is recognized for his invention of a chiming clock, his work establishing the original boundaries for Washington, D.C. and his advocacy for racial justice. The Benjamin Banneker Association is a non-profit organization that seeks to advance equity in mathematics education for Black students. They have developed a series of lesson plans to celebrate Banneker’s life and accomplishments.
Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson & Dorothy Vaughan
More widely known because of the 2016 film Hidden Figures, Jackson, Johnson and Vaughan are three African American women who played crucial roles in the early U.S. space program. The MTBoS community has put together a list of resources for teaching about the lives, work, and contributions of these women. NASA Education also provides a Modern Figures Toolkit, which includes mathematics (and other) lessons for grades 1-12.
Black mathematicians living and working today!
It is important to celebrate Black history in mathematics, but it is equally important to introduce students to the Black mathematicians who are making history as they live and work today. Since 2017, Mathematically Gifted & Black has selected one Black mathematician to honor for every day of February. You can view honorees for this year and past years on their site.