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Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence

Erica N. Walker
SUNY Press
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Ron Buckmire
, on

Erica Walker’s Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence (SUNY Press, 2014) is a well-researched exegesis of the various trajectories people of African descent have taken (and been forced to take) in order to become members of the American mathematical community throughout the late 20th century. Beyond Banneker is a compact but compelling collection of historical vignettes; Walkers uses these as brushstrokes to detail the experience of actual people (real individuals), painting a multicolored portrait of the terrain that African-American mathematicians have traversed and occupy in modern-day academia.

Walker’s primary source material for the book is interviews that she conducted with 35 Black mathematicians between 2007 and 2010. She divides them into three cohorts, delineating them by the era in which they came of age as mathematicians (i.e. received their doctorates). The three eras are 1940 to 1965 (“first generation”), 1965 to 1985 (“second generation”) and 1985 to 2010 (“third generation”). Walker provides insightful commentary on, and important context for, the various revealing excerpts of dialogue from actual mathematicians, which comprise the main body of the narrative. This allows the reader to learn about the lives of real Black people, who happen to be mathematicians, by reading their own words. Additionally, Walker’s analytic contributions elevate the work from simply being a stenographic collection of interview transcripts.

Beyond Banneker can serve as a useful resource and interesting read for many different kinds of readers. For aspiring mathematicians, especially Black students who are interested in pursuing advanced degrees in mathematics, the multiple examples of successful Black mathematicians can be inspiring and encouraging. For non-Black students, finding out about the different kinds of challenges that Black students historically and currently have to overcome in order to become mathematicians may be a source of empathy and solidarity.

For members of the mathematics community who are not Black, the book provides eye-opening (and sobering) quantitative data about Black research mathematicians in the United States, which refutes the oft-expressed belief that “there aren’t any Black PhDs!” Beyond Banneker supplements these statistics by furnishing rich, first-person details about the lived-experience of this group, providing some explanatory context for the underrepresentation of Black people in the mathematics research community. The book can also find an audience among the general public, especially non-mathematicians genuinely interested in reading about people different from themselves and who have achieved success in a domain often (spuriously) perceived to be both arcane and prestigious, i.e. mathematics in academia.

Overall, by providing actual and factual information about Black mathematicians, primarily in the powerful form of their own words, Beyond Banneker is an important addition to the conversation about diversity and broadening participation in the sciences.

Ron Buckmire is a Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation, primarily responsible for the undergraduate mathematics education aspect of the division’s mission. He is also Professor of Mathematics at Occidental College (Barack Obama’s first alma mater). He recently joined the board of the National Association of Mathematicians, which aims to promote excellence in the mathematical sciences and the mathematical development of underrepresented American minorities


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