Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Black Mathematician Month

One of the best things to have happened for mathematics in the UK recently is the arrival of Chalkdust magazine - an exciting, witty magazine with a unique style.  (It's very different in feel from the equally admirable, and much missed, iSquared, which is happily preserved online.)

And the best thing that Chalkdust has done is the Black Mathematician Month which has just finished - a month of interviews, conversations and activities "promoting black mathematicians, and talking about building a more representative mathematical community".  The stories that were told were sometimes shocking, sometimes horrifying, often inspiring, and very important. I was lucky enough to be one of the large audience for the final event, an excellent talk about the Black Heroes of Mathematics by Nira Chamberlain (and I was particularly pleased that several undergraduates from the University of Greenwich were also there).   Nira told us about a number of great black mathematicians: despite his own negative experiences as a young black man wishing to become a mathematician, and the obstacles in his way, his presentation was overwhelmingly positive in tone and his passion communicated strongly with the audience.

I myself was a very privileged mathematics student.  I had an adequate grant and did not need to work while I was studying.  I had a supportive family.  Both my parents went to university (probably quite unusual for the time although I didn't realise that), as did my father's sister (I believe the first woman from her school to do so) and all my siblings.  I was supported not only by their academic expectations but by their understanding of university education.  I was well prepared by excellent schoolteachers.  Careers advisers encouraged me to study maths, not to forget that ambition and aim to be a boxer (as Nira was advised) or a singer (as Nira's son, alarmingly recently, was told).

I understood some of that privilege at the time.  But of course, I was also white and male.  It is only now, when I look at the achievement of people like Nira, and many of our students at Greenwich who have overcome enormous obstacles, that I am beginning to understand just how that contributed to my privilege.  My mathematics cohort as an undergraduate was almost all white (possibly even entirely white: I don't remember any exceptions) and largely male.  When I look at my classes (and colleagues) at Greenwich, I feel very glad to have the opportunity to work with such diverse people.

Chalkdust's reflections on Black Mathematician Month deserve wide circulation.  This feels like an important initiative, which hopefully will help all potential mathematicians, whatever their race or gender, have the opportunity to follow their dreams, inspired by people like Nira and the other mathematicians featured.

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