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📚Black To School: Issue #22
Black Is Analytics 🧮: From Ancient Calculators & Space Femgineers to STEM Exemplars
For anyone new to Black To School, we explore the history and contributions of Africans and the African diaspora to global society. Our goal is to learn from these stories, draw inspiration, and make a positive change in our own lives, homes, and communities. The “Why?” that powers our mission is simple. “Our ancestors invented the table that the world now sits at. It’s time to not just claim our seat, but to set the agenda.”
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Welcome to Issue #22!
Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout time, women have always been agents of change and transformation. This month, we want to shine a light on ancient African mathematicians, enslaved geniuses, the pioneering Black women at NASA, and how HBCUs outperform their Ivy League counterparts in creating the next generation of Black doctors, scientists, and techies.
🧮 Black Is Analytics:
The earliest examples of advanced math in the world are all from the African continent. Did you know that our ancestors applied complex calculations to everything from agriculture, art, architecture, astronomy, academics, to accounting? And those are just the ‘A’ words!
What’s The Story? These Are The Facts.
African Women Were the Earliest Mathematicians.
What fundamental discovery sent shockwaves through the math-loving world? The answer is the Lebombo bone, widely considered to be the oldest mathematical object. Found in the Lebombo Mountain range (between South Africa and Eswatini), scientists have determined it to be around 43,000 years old! Due to the 29 notches etched into the bone, there’s a widespread belief that early African women used it to track lunar phases and menstrual cycles. This would have required significant data gathering, computation, and awareness of celestial bodies. To put this discovery into perspective, African women who marked the Lebombo, and later Ishango, bones gave birth to the field of math thousands of years before more widely-celebrated Greek mathematicians.
Enslaved Geniuses Defying the Odds.
Starting from meager beginnings (and his grandmother's reading and writing lessons), Benjamin Banneker challenged stereotypes and developed into a multi-talented prodigy. With only a few years of formal schooling, he continued learning independently and excelled in the fields of math and science. By age 22, he designed and built a wood striking clock that kept perfect time, the first of its kind made in America. As an adult, he wrote six almanacs and accurately estimated the timing of eclipses, sunrises, and sunsets. Thomas Jefferson even appointed him as an official urban planner responsible for helping to lay out the United States capital! Banneker was a stand-out but not alone in his genius. In the 18th Century, there were many other examples of exceptional math minds like Thomas Fuller, Charles Reason, Kelly Miller, Muhammad ibn Muhammad, and Anto Amo (whose very existence challenged the false connection between race and intelligence).
Black Female Engineers Put The First Human On The Moon.
The mathematicians at NASA’s West campus in Virginia, formerly a slave plantation, were known as West Area Computers: Black women (with math and related technical degrees) hired to assist with data tracking, analysis, and experimentation. At its peak, the Langley campus employed as many as 50 Black computers, including Annie Easley, Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Miriam Mann. These women compiled and processed data recorded from tests, conducted hundreds of calculations, and created charts and graphs for reports. Some of the more complex problems they tackled required everything from analytical geometry to linear algebra to estimate satellite’s lift, position, and trajectory, and eventually, crewed spaceships. Their calculations not only helped us achieve success in the arms and space race, but they also laid the groundwork for renewable energy technology and much more!
HBCUs Graduate More Black PhDs than Ivy League Schools.
Originally established around the time of the Civil War, the first HBCUs focused on technical training in agricultural, mechanical, and industrial trades. Today, over 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the US offer diverse areas of study, including degrees in STEM. In fact, Black HBCU STEM graduates account for 25% of all Black STEM graduates across the country, including 46% of all Black female STEM graduates and 30% of all STEM PhDs.
Ten of the top eleven universities that produce Black PhDs are HBCUs. These African American institutions consistently best Harvard, Yale, and other more well-endowed universities in producing Black STEM graduates. HBCU math and science programs (like the award-winning models at Spelman, Xavier, and Howard) illustrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that representation matters in unlocking our analytical talents. In late 2020, the National Science Foundation commissioned a group of HBCUs to conduct the most comprehensive study ever on STEM student enrollment and retention. When concluded, their findings will be shared with all colleges and universities to improve STEM performance nationwide.
What’s New? We Keep Building the Future.
Our great, great, great, great grandmothers x 10 to the 4th power laid the groundwork with mathematical instruments for tracking time using the phases of the moon. Their successors include scientists like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Moriba Jah, Wanjiku Chebet Kanjumba, Sidy Ndao, and tens of thousands of other STEM professionals around the world who are (re)engineering everything from life-saving vaccines and space exploration to the advancement of thermal computing technology.
🛠️ The Black To School Toolkit
Still curious? Dig deeper on your own, grow with your family, and learn how you can impact change in your own backyard:
For You: Check out this University at Buffalo chart of African countries that used math and computation during ancient times. Then, watch this featurette of the Hidden Figures movie, and buy the book for the full story!
For Family: Enjoy these 2 to 4-minute videos of math whiz-kids: Esther Okade, Caleb Anderson, Paula & Peter Imafidon, and Winnie Ngumi. For story time at home, get the book Hidden Figures for children. For high-schoolers, check out “Why Choose an HBCU?,” a 2-minute video on the magic of an HBCU education.
For Community: Want to remove bias from your hiring process? Partner with the organization, Karat, to improve your interviews. Then, dive deep with Ron Eglash, ethno-mathematician and writer of African Fractals, as he describes how community planning & development served as the basis of computation and recursion, the same computer logic that runs Google, and informed binary machine logic.
About Black To School
Black To School is a collaborative volunteer effort focused on sharing Black history, collecting helpful resources, and creating a safe space for discussion. Learn more about us here, and feel free to join our Slack community to keep the conversation going. People of all backgrounds are welcome!
If you’re passionate about this type of work and want to help out, please let us know! The best way to get in touch is by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with “volunteer” as the subject, or by joining our Slack community and sharing that you’d like to be involved.