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Synopsis - Journeys of Black Mathematicians: Forging Resilience

Journeys of Black Mathematicians: Forging Resilience (2024, 58 min.) is the first of two documentary films produced by Zala Films as part of the Journeys of Black Mathematicians project started in collaboration with SLMath (MSRI) in 2020.

Forging Resilience traces the evolution of a culture of Black scholars, scientists and educators. The film follows the stories of prominent pioneers, showing how the challenges they faced and their triumphs are reflected in the experiences of today's working Black mathematicians. Their mathematical descendants in turn are contemporary college students, and K-12 children across the U.S. who are learning that they belong in mathematics and STEM.

With over 50 individuals featured, the film is a panoramic survey starting with the first Black Ph.D., Edward Bouchet (1877), and W. W. S. Claytor, extraordinary exemplars from the early and mid-20th century who prepared the way for several of the trailblazers filmed for this project. The oldest of these is Virginia K. Newell (born in 1917), followed by Evelyn Boyd Granville, the second Black woman to earn her Ph.D. in mathematics, who died in 2023 at the age of 99.

Covid-19 was raging in December 2020 and there was yet no vaccine when we filmed at Virginia Newell's house in North Carolina. George Csicsery conducted the interview via a remote connection from California, while the cameraman stayed in another room a safe distance from Dr. Newell, who was 102 years old at the time.
Photo © Zala Films. All Rights Reserved.

Newell recalls a history where Blacks were not allowed to study reading and writing and describes her own efforts to introduce trigonometry in North Carolina schools. Evelyn Granville's path was different, a charmed passage through Smith and Yale to IBM and an exciting career of research in the space program.

Despite Granville's example, the educational and career opportunities for Black students in mathematics was often strewn with obstructions. Like many others who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in the southern United States, mathematician and physicist Ronald Mickens resolved to get out of Virginia for college. He got his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University, and continued his work at MIT. He has important contributions in numerous fields, and created one and a half himself—Nonstandard Finite Difference Schemes.

Freeman Hrabowski III grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and was arrested during the civil rights protests of 1963 as a child. A president emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), he is a tireless advocate of expanding mathematics education to under-represented communities.

Scott Williams describes how Black college students in Baltimore fought for the integration of a local movie theater in the 1960s through protest. Williams went on to earn his PhD in mathematics and embarked on a stellar career at the University of Buffalo. His education led through Morgan State, one of the four Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) featured in the film. Earl Barnes, a classmate of Williams at Morgan State, grew up in the south where he overheard White hunters threatening to shoot Black people if their children were forced to attend an integrated school. Barnes went north, and after Morgan State, had a long and successful career with IBM. Following that he returned to academia, first at Georgia Tech, then at Morgan State.

The role of HBCUs in producing Black mathematicians is a central theme. Sections on Morgan State, Howard University, Spelman College and Morehouse College connect the featured individuals in threads of mentorship stretching back to the 1940s. Akil Parker is an example of how the influence of an HBCU spreads to the community through its graduates. Parker, a Morgan State alumnus, runs a math tutoring program called All This Math, while his classmate Dontae Ryan has launched a math tutoring program with his wife Antoynica in Baltimore that is featured in the film. Parker quotes the activist educator Bob Moses, who said that "mathematics education is a number one civil rights issue of the 21st century." Both Parker and the Ryans maintain close ties to Morgan State.

Signs showing directions to the different Historically Black Colleges at the Atlanta University cluster.
Photo by George Csicsery © Zala Films. All Rights Reserved.

Zerotti Woods, a research mathematician, is a product of Morehouse College. He grew up in the rough and tough Cleveland Avenue neighborhood in Atlanta. At Morehouse he vacillated. "When I came in to Morehouse, 18 years old, I still hadn't made a choice if I was going to be an outlaw, or if I was going to go the straight and narrow, and going to be the schoolboy," Woods says in the film. He was suspended for a year, and it was only because Morehouse math teachers like Duane Cooper recognized his talent that he was able to return and eventually succeed.

At the beginning and end of the film, Woods, who now manages a research team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, talks to children at the Rosel Fann Recreation Center in his old neighborhood. Woods attended the same rec center as a child. After convincing the children that although he is one of them, he is in fact a research mathematician, Woods explains. "A lot of people in this world are going to tell you that you can't. And I'm a person that looks like you, and I'm going to tell you that you can."

The Brothers and Sisters ceremony is a tradition. The procession was filmed in 2021 during the height of the Covid epidemic.
Photo by George Csicsery © Zala Films. All Rights Reserved.

At every HBCU covered in the film, the role of an outstanding teacher is stressed by their students, who are today responsible for advancing the math and science programs at the schools. At Spelman College Etta Falconer produced at least two generations of women who are now leaders in the field. Spelman alumna and faculty who credit Falconer for paving the way for Black women in math include Sylvia Bozeman, with her own legacy as a force in producing new mathematicians, to Talitha Washington, director of the Data Science Initiative at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, in addition to being president of American Women in Mathematics (AWM), and numerous other positions; and Emille Davie Lawrence, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of San Francisco. They are transmitting and adding to the legacy received from Falconer, as it flows through them to current students. One of these followed in the film is Janiah Kyle, who was in the Spelman class of 2023.

Johnny Houston and cinematographer Ashley James after a long day of shooting at Howard University.
Photo by George Csicsery © Zala Films. All Rights Reserved.

At Morehouse College the math department was built by C. B. Dansby (1897-1973). One of his students, Johnny Houston, tells us that he first went to Morehouse "because I had never seen a Black professor with a Ph.D. in mathematics." Houston went on to earn his doctorate at Purdue. In 1969 he attended the Joint Mathematics Meeting (JMM), the largest annual professional conference for mathematicians in the United States. Of the 3,600 participants, Houston met fewer than 25 Blacks. He discovered that they shared the experiences of being excluded from numerous groups and activities, and they resolved to demand change. Among them was Scott Williams, who along with Houston and Jim Donaldson of Howard University, founded the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM). The growth of NAM led to a key annual event—NAM's MathFest. At the 2022 edition held at Morgan State University in Baltimore, professors brought their talented undergraduates to present their work to an audience of other Black mathematicians, and to meet recruiters from graduate schools and a range of companies and government agencies.

William McNeill and Ashley James film with mathematicians Zerotti Woods and Shelby Wilson at NAM's Mathfest in 2022.
Photo by George Csicsery © Zala Films. All Rights Reserved.

Among these professors was Howard University's Dennis Davenport. We meet two of his students at MathFest. Destin Davis tells us that before taking a class from Davenport at Howard, he had never met a Black math teacher. Ashlyn Lee, a sophomore at Howard who hails from Bermuda, is encouraged by the fact that suddenly she is surrounded by so many people like her who love mathematics. Several participants describe MathFest as being among the most formative experiences of their education.

One of the presenters at MathFest is Janiah Kyle from Spelman. She had interned with mathematical epidemiologist Abba Gumel on a project aimed at generating predictive models for the spread of malaria. Her presentation is met by several invitations to graduate school, and an offer from Zerotti Woods to join his team at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins.

Prominent among the recruiters at MathFest is the National Security Agency (NSA), perhaps the largest employer of mathematicians anywhere. Mel Currie is a retired NSA mathematician who greatly expanded the number of Black and Native American mathematicians at the agency. In the film he eloquently explains the need for talented people with a strong ethical sense to participate in the work conducted by intelligence agencies.

Mel Currie, now retired from the National Security Agency (NSA), recruited numerous African-American mathematicians to work at the agency while he was there. He also had a role in finding government support for several initiatives and scholarship programs that helped advance the careers and visibility of Black and other under-represented groups in mathematics.
Photo by George Csicsery © Zala Films. All Rights Reserved.

While many of the mathematicians in the film, such as Morgan State's Asamoah Nkwanta, and University of San Francisco's Emille Davie Lawrence, work in pure mathematics, the intersection of academia and applied mathematics holds the most opportunities for employment. Bonita Saunders is an example of someone who took her Ph.D. to a career at the National institute of Standards (NIST). Tasha Inniss, Associate Provost for Research at Spelman College, worked at the FAA, modeling aircraft landing patterns during inclement weather. Among the most impressive applications presented is the wide-ranging work of Abba Gumel, a world-renowned expert on the mathematical theory of epidemics.

The search for ways to bring future generations into the mathematical fold is a central theme for almost all of those portrayed. There are arguments for cultural change, as advocated by Freeman Hrabowski III, and descriptions of ongoing exclusion from the wider mathematical community as evidenced by the stories of Edray Goins and Omayra Ortega, who describe experiences of isolation at predominantly white institutions. At the same time, William Massey of Princeton University, the founder of the Conference for African-American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS), cautions that the drive for more equity and inclusion must not occur at the expense of "skills and drills, the skills you have to develop, and if you don't do that, you're not really going to understand what's going on," he explains.

Along with MathFest, one program targeting undergraduates with a summer research experience that prepares them for graduate school is the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP), where 18 students are brought to Berkeley for six weeks during which they work on unsolved problems. Among those in the 2022 edition of MSRI-UP is Elijah Leake, a Chicago area student on the cusp of graduating from DePaul University. He has embraced, dropped and returned to mathematics in the course of his undergraduate education. What he chooses to pursue will be followed in film two of Journeys of Black Mathematicians. The careers and choices of other students we have met in Forging Resilience will also be followed.

Today's African-American students have more opportunities to engage with mathematics than any of their predecessors had. Yet there are powerful headwinds: lingering racial prejudice and internal cultural resistance to math and STEM in the community, are just two. "As African-Americans it can be tough in this society," Tasha Inniss explains. "We may get knocked down, but we will rise. Resilience is our middle name." Johnny Houston goes further. "The issue is not what is possible, what is available," he says. "The issue is what do you want to do, and what are you willing to commit yourself to do?"

Screenings & Broadcasts

Latest News

Feb 15, 2024 - The University of Washington Department of Mathematics, Department of Applied Mathematics and the Department of Statistics, in partnership with the Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute (SLMath), are hosting a screening of Journeys of Black Mathematicians: Forging Resilience on Thursday, February 15, 6 p.m. The screening will be at UW's Kane Hall Room 110, Seattle, WA. Learn more.

Feb. 7, 2024 - All are welcome to join the Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute (SLMath, formerly MSRI), and Zala Films at the first public premiere of Journeys of Black Mathematicians: Forging Resilience, at the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley, on Wednesday, February 7. Doors open at 6 p.m. with the screening at 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. A Q&A with filmmaker George Csicsery and a dessert reception will follow the screening. RSVPs are requested at Admission is free. The film will be shown with English language open captions.

Jan. 11, 2024 - George Csicsery of Zala Films writes about the making of Journeys of Black Mathematicians: Forging Resilience in the February 2024 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. In the article Csicsery shares how, with the support of the African American math community, and despite the onset of Covid-19 early in the project, he was able to interview more than 60 pioneer, mid-career and young mathematicians and filmed more than 200 hours of material for the project. Csicsery credits the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM), their griot, Johnny Houston, and the Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute (SLMath) for helping him shepherd the film to completion.

Jan. 6, 2024 - The Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute (SLMath) and the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM) invited JMM 2024 registrants to join them in San Francisco on January 6, 2024, at 11:30 a.m. for the world premiere of the newest documentary feature by director George Csicsery of Zala Films. The Journeys of Black Mathematicians documentary series explores the contributions of pioneering African Americans in mathematics. Forging Resilience, the first of two films, features interviews with contemporary Black American researchers and educators who discuss their experiences, struggles and accomplishments. The film surveys some innovative educational programs in math at every level from grade school through undergraduate and postdocs.

Tatiana Toro, director of SLMath, will introduce the film. A panel discussion following the screening features Johnny L. Houston, Elizabeth City State University/NAM; Emille Davie Lawrence, University of San Francisco; Duane A. Cooper, Morehouse College; Anisah Nu'Man, Spelman College; and Omayra Ortega, Sonoma State University/NAM.

The film will become available for streaming and public exhibition immediately after the premiere screening.

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