Severely underrepresented in mathematics, African Americans have played important roles as researchers and educators in the field. This documentary traces the history of the individuals who worked as pioneers in expanding the presence of African Americans in mathematics.
Journeys of Black Mathematicians is a film that will inspire African American students to continue their studies and consider career paths in mathematics. This joint project between the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) and Zala Films, designed for the general public, will appeal to both math/science audiences and anyone interested in the largely untold history of African Americans in science and mathematics.
In addition to the rich histories to be covered and compelling stories of contemporary Black American mathematicians, the film will showcase innovative educational programs in math for African American students at every level from grade school through undergraduate and postdocs, portraying their experiences, struggles and accomplishments. The historical characters and their stories will be interwoven to support themes identified in the lives and experiences of the students and aspiring mathematicians we plan to follow in various institutional settings as they explore the field and possibilities for future careers in mathematics.
Without venturing any predictions about individual choices, the film adheres to the proposition that a passion for mathematics and its pursuit can by itself produce positive social change and lead to a satisfying and meaningful life.
Showing the stories and accomplishments of historical African American mathematicians is an opportunity to present the lives and work of many exceptional figures who have until now been largely unknown not only to the wider public, but also to African Americans.
Evelyn Boyd Granville (born May 1, 1924) was the second African American woman to receive a PhD in mathematics from an American University; she earned it in 1949 from Yale University (she attended Smith College before Yale). She performed pioneering work in the field of computing.
Journeys of Black Mathematicians examines some of the history that has prevented African Americans from the pursuit of studies and careers in science and mathematics. Black mathematicians have continued to face barriers in a world that is only now grudgingly coming to terms with a legacy of inequality and prejudice. The stories of our characters offer a wide range of examples.
The National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) was created in 1969 as a base through which Black mathematicians could have their voices heard at the large professional organizations in their field. Johnny Houston, one of the founders, explains the genesis of the organization. Monica Stephens Cooley describes the dilemmas faced by Black women with PhDs in math.
Several of the mathematicians in the film are either products of, or did their work in training future mathematicians, at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), such as Spelman, Morehouse and Howard. Documenting the role of the 105 historically Black colleges is part of the story. The HBCU experience remains significant, as these schools continue to produce more African American PhDs in science and mathematics than all other universities in the United States.
Virginia K. Newell was born in 1918. At age 103, she covered huge swaths of history: how she got interested in mathematics as a child, her exposure to good teachers, and to the attitudes that produced obstructions to the education of Black students.
There is an ephemeral, aesthetic side to mathematics that, in conjunction with its pragmatic qualities, stimulates people to look for new truths. Seeing beauty, discovering new ideas, and attaining a proof, are experiences that inspire mathematicians. Several of them describe their devotion to mathematics in reverent terms.
Choosing postdocs and grad students, in addition to high school and younger students, involves filming at several well-established programs, as well as documenting some new initiatives as these are introduced. Here are some programs currently in our plans. We expect more groups will be included as we progress. All of these programs are gearing up to start in-person live sessions in 2022 after over two years of survival in the virtual state. We hope to film several of them during 2022 and 2023 as they go live.
In a partnership with mathematicians from UCLA, teachers at Horace Mann Community School in Los Angeles launched an innovative program in which students created posters of pioneers in mathematics and science after researching their lives and accomplishments. The project conceived by Wilfrid Gangbo, a UCLA mathematics professor, postdoc Matthew Jacobs, and Tatiana Toro, then a mathematics professor at the University of Washington, soon had input from Edray Goins of Pomona College and Kyndall Brown, Executive Director, California Mathematics Project Statewide Office, UCLA. Some phases of the project, called K12 Students Poster Design Challenge to Promote Pioneers in Mathematics, were filmed in May 2022. Hopefully, expanded versions of this program will be filmed at other schools during 2023 and 2024.
The MSRI Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP) is a comprehensive summer program designed for undergraduate students who have completed two years of university-level mathematics courses and would like to conduct research in the mathematical sciences. The main objective of MSRI-UP is to identify talented students, especially those from underrepresented groups, who are interested in mathematics and make available to them meaningful research opportunities, the necessary skills and knowledge to participate in successful collaborations, and a community of academic peers and mentors who can advise, encourage and support them through a successful graduate program.
This objective is designed to contribute significantly to increasing the number of graduate degrees in the mathematical sciences, especially by cultivating heretofore-untapped mathematical talent within the U.S. Black, Hispanic/Latino and Native American communities.
NAM's Undergraduate MATHFest is a three-day meeting, typically Friday through Sunday in the fall, which rotates around the country based on NAM's regional structure. It is held annually to encourage students to pursue advanced degrees in mathematics and mathematics education. The conference is geared for undergraduates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
The mission of Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM) is to create pathways for underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists. Serving mostly seventh and eighth graders in programs based in the Bronx and in Los Angeles, BEAM presents an opportunity to identify, work with and track the progress of the youngest students to be covered in the film.
The EDGE Program is administered by the Sylvia Bozeman and Rhonda Hughes EDGE Foundation with the goals of strengthening the ability of women to pursue careers in mathematical research and education, and placing more women in visible leadership roles in the mathematics community. Along with the summer session, EDGE supports an annual conference, travel for research collaborations, travel to present research, and other open-ended mentoring activities. The EDGE Summer Program is a comprehensive program of activities for women entering PhD programs in the mathematical sciences. The mathematical component consists of a minicourse in MATLAB, and four workshops in analysis, algebra, measure theory and machine learning. An important feature of the Summer Program is its unwavering commitment to diversity and an intersectional approach for each participant group. Our program of activities addresses key factors related to successfully completing the first year of graduate school, successfully tackling qualifying exams, successfully finding a research advisor and maintaining a productive relationship with an advisor, and successfully preparing for life after graduate school, all while each person brings their whole self into their respective graduate school environment.
EDGE seeks to create, identify and disseminate programs and strategies that improve the persistence of women and minority graduate students, and that contribute to the development of a diverse mathematical community. We actively recruit from institutions that serve underrepresented minorities, and value a range of institution types and socio-economic statuses in our selection process. Our alums are working in academia, industry and government across the United States, in the UK, Europe, Israel and Africa.
ADJOINT is a yearlong program that provides opportunities for U.S. mathematicians – especially those from the African Diaspora – to form collaborations with distinguished African American research leaders on topics at the forefront of mathematical and statistical research. Beginning with an intensive two-week summer session at MSRI, participants work in small groups under the guidance of some of the nation’s foremost mathematicians and statisticians to expand their research portfolios into new areas.
Production on Journeys of Black Mathematicians began in mid-2020. The first interview took place in September 2020, with Scott Williams, filmed in Erie, Pennsylvania. Due to restraints on travel and physical contact, especially with elderly persons who were more vulnerable to the epidemic prior to the availability of the Covid vaccines in February 2020, the next two interviews were filmed with only a local cameraman present with the subject, and the producer and cinematographer participating remotely via internet connection. Dr. Virginia Newell, age 103, was interviewed at her home in North Carolina in December 2020 this way.
The second remote interview was conducted in March 2021, with Dr. Evelyn Granville, at her home in Washington, D.C. An interview with Dr. Emille Lawrence, chair of mathematics at the University of San Francisco, was conducted live at her home in San Francisco in April 2021. Two subsequent shoots with Dr. Lawrence took place in San Francisco and Alameda. Professor Edray Goins was interviewed at his office at Pomona College in Claremont in June 2021. In October, an 8-day shoot at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the Atlanta area allowed us to interview ten people and film on the grounds of Spelman and Morehouse colleges. A November 2021 interview with Dr. Omayra Ortega of Sonoma State University was shot at MSRI in Berkeley.
The completed project might result in a feature film of around 90 to 100 minutes, or two, possibly three, one-hour films edited for classroom and television length programs. Filming will be completed by mid-2023 with a projected premiere date of January 2024.
Shorter pieces made available at this website will introduce characters and topics as the project nears completion.
The project is being developed by film producer George Csicsery (zalafilms.com) with major support organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI). Generous funding has been provided by:
Research and scripting support provided by Albert Lewis of the Educational Advancement Foundation (EAF), and MSRI. Project consultants include Johnny Houston, Edray Goins, Sylvia Bozeman and Duane Cooper.
An Advisory Group of African American Mathematicians (AGAAM), chaired by Johnny Houston, has been formed to recommend African American mathematicians for participation in the project. Dr. Houston, a co-founder of NAM, is a senior consultant. He has been instrumental in selecting the participants for interviews in the Atlanta and Baltimore areas, and in organizing and scheduling those interviews.
The project actively began in 2020 with producer Csicsery interviewing/videotaping the following mathematicians and students through July 2023:
Additional interviews are being planned through mid-2024.
There are scores of individuals who qualify and have been considered for participation. However, there is a limit to the number of participants who can be selected. For those not selected, AGAAM and Zala Films/MSRI offer their profound apology in advance.
GEORGE PAUL CSICSERY is a writer and has been an independent filmmaker since 1968. He has directed 36 films, many about the lives and work of mathematicians. His best-known documentaries are Secrets of the Surface: The Mathematical Vision of Maryam Mirzakhani (2020); Navajo Math Circles (2016); Counting from Infinity: Yitang Zhang and the Twin Prime Conjecture (2015); Julia Robinson and Hilbert’s Tenth Problem (2008); Hard Problems: The Road to the World’s Toughest Math Contest (2008); Hungry for Monsters: A Tale from a New Age Witch Hunt (2004); N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős (1993); and Where the Heart Roams (1987).
In 2009, Csicsery received the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) Communications Award for bringing mathematics to non-mathematical audiences. Between 2017-2019, he was a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University.