Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Clean Corners and Algebra: A Critical Examination of the Constructed Invisibility of Black Girls and Women in Mathematics

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Clean Corners and Algebra: A Critical Examination of the Constructed Invisibility of Black Girls and Women in Mathematics

Article excerpt

In his essay "The Negro Problem," Nathaniel Southgate Shaler argued against General Armstrong's assertion that the emancipated Negro should have access to a literary education. While his comments are considered unremarkable and deeply bigoted by contemporary standards, Shaler was a prominent and popular lecturer at Harvard University in paleontology and geology during his tenure (1869-1906) and was an equally significant part of the mainstream scientific and social community (Livingstone, 1987). His lamentable rhetoric (provided next) succinctly, if not expertly, couples racist and sexist discourses and offers a useful departure in my discussion of Black girls and women in mathematics.

I am very glad to find that in most points I am so fortunate to be of one mind with General Armstrong, who has done more than any one else to help the enfranchised blacks on their way towards a true citizenship. I regret to differ from him in my estimate of the value to the negro of a high purely literary education. The time may come when such a training will bear the same relation to their inheritances that it does to those of the literate class of our own race, but as a rule the little colored girl was right: 'You can't get clean corners and algebra into the same nigger.' That combination is with difficulty effected in our own blood. The world demands clean corners; it is not so particular about the algebra [original emphasis in italics]. (Shaler, 1884, p. 709)

Shaler's quote frames four challenges of Black girls and women's achievement and participation in mathematics. First, the quote helps to situate the discussion of Black girls and women within the historical trajectory of the enslavement and colonization of African people (cf. Mutegi, 2013). The "negro problem," as posited by Shaler, is a question of the emancipated Black person's place in U.S. society. For example, what are Black people to do with a literary education and, particularly, with algebra? Black girls and women-"little colored girls"-doing mathematics is both a contemporary and a historical phenomenon uniquely shaped by their position within the U.S. social order. Secondly, the quote is told in part (we are to believe) through the voice of a Black girl child who cannot imagine holding multiple identities, namely, as a laborer and a mathematics doer. With the comment "You can't get clean corners and algebra into the same nigger," Shaler artfully constructs competing images about who Black girls can be-domestic laborers-and what they can effectively do-clean corners. Thirdly, Shaler is unequivocal in his belief that the world demands physical labor from this Black girl, not mathematical knowledge by stating, "The world demands clean corners; it is not so particular about the algebra." He positions the Black girl's value in singular terms, that is, labor for others. Her labor is domestic in nature and, thereby, necessarily gendered. Finally, the Black girl's lack of mathematics ability has been naturalized, or "effected in our own blood," and rationalized (or predestined) by an economic order in which the needs of others, "the world," supersede her individual needs and aspirations as a Black girl. In 1884, the image of Black girlhood, according to Shaler, was incompatible with mathematics achievement and participation.

In this article, the author provides a commentary on the constructed invisibility of Black girls and women in mathematics. That is, she critically grappled with the perpetuation of historical and contemporary constructions of Black girls and women that make the existence of coherent narratives of Black girls and women in mathematics essentially impossible and begins by highlighting Black girls and women in mathematics education research literature, before turning to the issue of unknowability of Black girls and women (Dotson, 2013). The author then analyzes a mathematics-oriented initiative to demonstrate how Black girls and women are used as a referent to justify the socio-epistemic spaces only to be made invisible. …

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