“We’ve gone over this multiple times in class,” my teacher told me. He was a sweaty, exasperated mess. “What you don’t get now, you won’t get come test time!”
That is the clearest memory I have of learning about numbers, patterns, quantities, structure, space and change. What Wikipedia refers to as mathematics. What I have disregarded as cold and austere, impersonal and inaccessible. Well, until now.
I had always been a political person growing up. I was raised up spiritually in the Black church next to images of Nat Turner and Dr. King, and my parents made sure I knew about the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Black Power, watched Do the Right Thing and Roots and listened to Nina Simone and Lauryn Hill. Going to public schools all my life allowed me to see the benefits of commonly owned resources and the value of academic curiosity, but also helped to instill within me both obedience to rules and a lingering fear and an automatic distrust of centralized power, both of which I am still trying to unlearn today. However, my relative achievements in school settings were based on an affinity for the dialectic between context and transcendence. This dialectic was most easily attainable through the social sciences and the arts and my faith, hence my love for music and history. This same dialectic however was particularly unattainable through fields in which mathematics was the intellectual foundation.
This summer, I began to truly struggle to learn why. The conclusion I came to of course is largely a political one; institutions that value measurable results over academic imagination write whole textbooks that presume a certain white-centric cultural competency that I personally did not have growing up. School curricula that focus so much on using numbers and arithmetical symbols as the language of finance capital and wealth accumulation created a gulf between mathematical inquiry and social justice. Of course, the rampant anti-intellectualism of people in positions that should promote intellectual curiosity (like my asshead of a teacher) attempt to reify dismissive attitudes of arithmetic, geometry, algebra and calculus.
But mathematics too can be used as a particular existential language to discuss, interpret and change the dynamic between context and transcendence. This summer I have embarked on a journey to attempt to see mathematics and logic as more than just cold rationality that white men shout at you when you’d rather learn about slave rebellions. Mathematics isn’t for white men. And that is what I wish I had known.
I wish I had known that algebra was articulated by people of color hundreds of years before Greek men in flowing robes. I wish I had known that numbers could be thought of as the essence of reality, or number could be defined as the exponent of an operation. I wish I had known that intersectional approaches to studying politics and formal logic, or historical materialism and number theory could set me up to embrace languages I did not have a firm grasp on.
And of course mathematics is everywhere when it comes to the marginalized and dispossessed peoples of Empire. Since the Great Recession, Black wealth has dropped exponentially, which means Black wealth has decreased at a rate proportional to its then-current value. Oppressed people are conditioned to internalize oppression quite literally in their bodies. Geometrically, this means that we physically take up less length, width and depth than we are supposed to. Black people whose ancestors were enslaved, terrorized and lynched always had to struggle between relying on and fighting for expanded existence in the physical space of the world while also maintaining a sense of historical and ancestral connection that reaches across space and through time. In that sense, the Newtonian, Einsteinian and Tolstoyan conceptions of time (their benefits and drawbacks) do matter for political struggle!
Perhaps if mathematics were taught in this way, folks like me wouldn’t worry so much about memorizing theorems and postulates exclusively, and learn more about things that would actually excite them, like how Euclid’s Elements relate to Feminist critiques of the idealized body types or the relation between Pythagorean metaphysics and Queer theology.
But hey, I can’t fully blame my teacher for his role in shaping my warped view of mathematics. He was really just an intensely isolated subject under the influence of vindictive corporate powers. Powers that demanded he establish dominion and unrivaled order in the classroom in exchange for his own de-classing to benefit the same pathetic privateers and perpetual profit worshipers who would love nothing more than to see an alienated, aging white middle class man steal curiosity from a young Black kid who loves StarWars.
So then it all comes full circle. The very people in power within structures of domination that rely on me staying ignorant of the history of mathematics and its revolutionary implications end up digging their own graves. Our job is to bury this oppression and throw away the shovel.
And also, you know, try out math again. That way you can immerse yourself in it, even when a test score isn’t on the line.