Today’s Math: Cultural Exclusion in the Stem Trend

Today’s Math: Cultural Exclusion Within the STEM Trend

By: Adisa Banjoko

Can we talk about the top 1% and the bottom 99?/ Or the wise 5% and the deaf, dumb and blind 85?/ Or how the circle 7 and the 120 saved our lives?
– Come to the Hills Amir Sulaiman

A few weeks ago I walked into the Ocala Youth Center in San Jose after passing out fliers for our free Hip-Hop Chess program. I was sweating like a runaway slave under the summer sun, but I was happy. You might think walking between Crip, Norteno and Sureno gang turfs trying to teach kids about chess would not work, or be fun. But its a ”beautiful struggle.”

Our non-profit was awarded the Safe Summer Initiative Grant provided by the City of San Jose through the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force. Through that, we have been able to teach the game of kings to underserved kids in East side San Jose. Because of the shimmer of silicon chips is so often in the news, it’s easy to forget the gang wars and turf battles. The BG’s (young “baby gangsters”) respect my efforts and let us do our work without any hassles. They know my intentions. I appreciate that. When we first opened up at Ocala Middle School, five kids walked in. Two weeks later we were getting just under fifty.

HHCF teaching fundamentals at Ocala Youth Center in San Jose, CA

One of my favorite kids is a teenage girl who learns freestyle wrestling from her dad, loves rap and heavy metal, and has a passion for singing in her spare time. “Where did chess come from?” she asked me one day between moves. I smiled and spoke to her like an uncle talking to his favorite niece.

“Chess came to America essentially because the Moors brought the game with them when they conquered Spain on 700 AD. If they don’t bring the game to Spain, Europe never gets it. If Europe never gets it, Benjamin Franklin never learns it. If he does not learn it, and come to America- we never get it. Today Maurice Ashley stands as the first Black Grand Master. Cuba had a World Champion, Jose Raul Capablanca, a true icon for Latino’s around the world. The beauty of the sport and art of chess is something all cultures have connected through. If you think chess is a game only by and for old rich White people, then you have lost your place in the history of chess. Im here today to help you find it and do something with it.” I also remind my students about Black female chess champion Rochelle Ballantyne (seen in the documentary Brooklyn Castles) who is now at Stanford University and rising female champion Diamond Shakoor.

She immersed in the conversation. I told her that opening with pawns, knights and bishops to control the center of the board, was no different than keeping your head up, elbows tight and low center of gravity heading to the middle of the mat to meet your opponent in wrestling. I knew then that the history of chess, when framed through an authentic cultural lense, gets students immediately engaged.. I had an instant flashback to one of my discussions on this topic with a former colleague who served as a mathematics teacher.

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Moorish men playing a game of chess in Spain

Working as a security guard at John O’Connell High School in San Francisco, I learned a lot about American public schools. Compared to the average American parent I’ve had an uncommon level of access to teachers and students unfettered for several years. These experiences helped me configure my non-profit, the Hip-Hop Chess Federation to help teachers and students find new ways to achieve academic greatness.

One of the first things I learned was the gross lack of cultural connectivity to math and science. It all started while talking with a White female teacher at the school who was concerned about not reaching a certain group of Black and Latino males. They were regularly in trouble in her class. These kids were very disruptive and she called me to her room many times to wrangle mayhem out the classroom.

After hearing her legitimate grievances with these youngsters I asked her “Have you ever thought about teaching math from a cultural perspective?”

“What do you mean” she asked?

“For instance, the book Blacks in Science by Dr. Ivan Van Sertima talks about how the Mayans invented the concept of the zero before the people of India did. I find this fascinating because there is no historical account of them having any contact with one another. Now, I believe things that that would really excite kids from Mexico and El Salvador (we have a large Latino population).. Maybe if you talked to your Black students about Imhotep , architect of the first step pyramid in Kemet (commonly called Egypt) you would be able to make math not just another subject, but an extension of their culture. That makes it more than just homework, it makes it part of a tradition to uphold.”

She looked at me with the most serious eyes on Earth and said “But I don’t know any of that stuff. I can’t teach that.” The horror in her response was that she said it as if she was incapable of reading the same book I just referenced. I realized a millisecond later her response was ploy to evade taking the time to do homework on her own to get connectivity to her pupils. As if by virtue of her college degree, she no longer needed to read these kinds of things to qualify her as a teacher. She continues to struggle with Black and Latino students.

Looking at the dismal state of Black and Latino achievements in mathematics, can make any half sane parent cringe. Bloomberg recently reported “The achievement gap between black and white students has remained steady at about 30 points in math from 2005 to 2013.” One could google for hours the low numbers in Black and Latino math and science deficiencies. Diverseeducation.com quoted Dr. Sylvia Hurtado, Professor and Director of the Higher Education Research at UCLA in 2011 stating “It is very disturbing to see more pronounced gaps at basic science proficiency in 12th grade, and that so few Black and Hispanic students are proficient at the most basic level.”

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Mayan scholars like the one pictured above invented the concept of the zero long before the people of India.

Almost everytime I turn around I see people trying to promote STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics). It serves as the latest buzzword in academia. As exciting as it appears, I find this an offense to Black, Latino and other non-White peoples. This is simply because the bulk of STEM approaches are culturally sterile, sleepy hollow methodologies that frankly don’t inspire inner city minds. But it does not have to be this way.

My belief is that the future is not in STEM but STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art [underline emphasis mine] and Mathematics. The element of art instantly alters the effectiveness of teaching the others. It’s also closer to the ancient traditions of many in the global diaspora.

The unmatchable classic Who Is God Rakim paints images of the Black man and womans past “Life was life, and love was love/ We went according by the laws of the world above/ They showed us physically, we could reach infinity/ But mentally through the centuries we lost our identity.” This is the the most succinct explanation of our academic failure in American education I have ever heard from a rapper (or anyone really).

Look around. Most ancient Black and Brown civilizations never separated their art from mathematics, science and engineering. They are the inventors and curators of STEAM. These ancestors painted pyramids, decorated lunar and solar calendars. Kemetic craftsmen engraved towering pillars in their houses of worship adorned with hieroglyphics. The architects of the Ottoman empire emblazoned geometric calligraphy in their masjids. Nevertheless, Most non-White children believe their people have no historical bond with science, math and engineering. Yet we know better, and so do most American teachers. Clearly a type of cultural and ethnic cleansing inside education has been taking place.

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Geometry, algebra, architecture, art and spirituality were never separated in traditional cultures

I think many astronomy students would love to know that the Kaaba in Mecca, built by Prophet Abraham is perfectly aligned with the star Canopus. “The four corners of the Kaaba roughly point toward the four cardinal directions of the compass.[1] Its major (long) axis is aligned with the rising of the star Canopus toward which its southern wall is directed, while its minor axis (its east-west facades) roughly align with the sunrise of summer solstice and the sunset of winter solstice.”

Any class of Algebra that does not start with the Persian mathematician Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (a scholar at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad), dishonors all the work in the classroom that follow it. The words algebra and algorithm, are born from his name. He was from Baghdad. In People of the Book, Zachary Karabell quotes the intellectual achievements of that city by one person who walked its street stating “Baghdad thrived as few cities ever have, or ever will.” One of the greatest mathematicians of Baghdad, Ibn Yaḥyā al-Maghribī al-Samawʾa was the son of a Moroccan Rabbi who wrote several books on algebra and also respected scholar of medicine.

In the book Golden Age of the Moor, Edited by Dr. Van Sertima, it highlights how Africans and Arabs “made algebra an exact science and developed in considerably and laid the foundation of analytical geometry; they were indisputably the plane and spherical trigonometry which, properly speaking did not exist among the Greeks.” In The Immortal Game, David Shenk highlights how the Moors used the chessboard as an abacus for mathematical calculations. Andalusian architecture in Spain today is a living testament to centuries of African and Arab science, technology, engineering, art and math.

What the Moors built, was on the shoulders of the Kemetic (Egyptian) ancestors. On the topic of African contributions to physics, John Pappademos wrote “The few papyri which have survived, show that they (the Egyptians) could compute the areas and volumes of abstract geometric figures….To the Egyptians we owe the idea of letting a symbol represent an unknown quantity in algebra.”

Like the Moors, when Hip-Hop was In its “golden age” (1988-1993) it heavily promoted the importance of mathematics. This was mainly done by the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths, a branch of the Nation of Islam. Artists like Poor Righteous Teachers, Rakim, Wu-Tang Clan, Brand Nubian, Jay Z and many others have been affiliated with the organization. For them, understanding of mathematics has many practical and spiritual importance. Their symbol is the number 7 inside a circle and star. They teach their own “supreme alphabet”, “supreme mathematics” and “120 degrees” of knowledge. Hip-Hop spread these ideas across the world.

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On the left, Jay Z, wearing a 5% medallion. On the right, its Founder Clarence 13 X

One of the fastest growing movements in teaching science is Science Genius. It is spearheaded by Dr. Chris Emdin who works closely with Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA (heavily influenced by the 5%) to host youth rap battles about science. Its impressive to see.

As a young adult in the early 1990’s I cannot allow the effort and accurate scholarship of Dr. Van Sertima, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Dr. Runoko Rashidi and others to be buried under online searches. Our contemporary educators need to be informed and trained on this wisdom and encouraged to teach it to all American youth. To fail to do this, is not just a crime against the Black, Latino, Arab and Persian contributions to STEAM are the foundation of everything we say want our children to study. It is a crime against all American youth as a whole. Because the current culture of mathematics reinforces European superiority in STEM- it robs them of the truth! Today’s Black academics have a duty to demand more books with these truths be made part of public school curriculum. Virtually all cultures have had a hand in the evolution of how we learn and apply math. Eurocentric based math classes dishonor STEM’s founders and innovators as well their newest students. I am not in favor of Black or White supremacist teaching methods. I’m an advocate of the truth for the benefit of all. At the same time I understand that the enemies of my ancestors had no vested interest in ensuring their children knew the truth about my people. In many ways the American school system is functioning as it should in its failure to properly educate kids.

I submit to all administrators and teachers in American public, charter and private schools that teaching science, technology, engineering and math minus an artistic element undercuts the potential of student engagement from day one. The global diaspora has never separated their art from their cultural relationship to mathematics and science. Our culturally barren methods now used to teach math and science only alienate and marginalize American minds. This renders them incapable of moving full STEAM ahead in the future. We must do better.

Adisa Banjoko is Founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. They are hosting the grand opening of their new facility August 16th 2014 in the Bay Area. For more information visit http://www.facebook.com/hiphopchess

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About hiphopchessfederation

The Hip Hop Chess Federation fuses music chess and martial arts to promote unity, strategy and non-violence. Our goal is to improve the intellectual, cultural and artistic state of young American minds.
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