Hidden Figures: Visibility / Invisibility of Brown Brilliance, Part I Sunday, Jan 22 2017 

Has everybody seen Hidden Figures yet?

It’s delightful: a tight, well-acted, gripping drama, based on a true story about an exciting chapter in national history. You can just go to have a good time. You don’t need to feel like you are going to some kind of Important Movie About Race or whatever. It is totally kid friendly, and as long as they know the most basic facts about the history of racial discrimination, it doesn’t force you to have any kind of conversation you aren’t up for / have every day and don’t need another… / etc. Just go and enjoy yourself.

THAT SAID.

Everybody, parents especially, and white parents especially, please go see this film and take your kids.

I was actually fighting back tears inside of 5 minutes.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am strongly critical of the widespread notion of innate mathematical talent. I’ve written about this before, and plan on doing a great deal more of this writing in the future. The TL;DR version is that I think our cultural consensus, only recently beginning to be challenged, that the capacity for mathematical accomplishment is predestined, is both factually false and toxic. My views on the subject can make me a bit of a wet blanket when it comes to the representation of mathematical achievement in film – the Hollywood formula for communicating to the audience that “this one is a special one” usually feels to me like it’s feeding the monster, and that can get between me and an otherwise totally lovely film experience.

In spite of all of this, when Hidden Figures opened by giving the full Hollywood math genius treatment to little Katherine Johnson (nee Coleman), kicking a stone through the woods while she counted “fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, prime, eighteen, prime, twenty, twenty-one, …,” I choked up. I had never seen this before. The full Good Will Hunting / Little Man Tate / Beautiful Mind / Searching for Bobby Fischer / Imitation Game / etc. child-genius set of signifiers, except for a black girl!

What hit me so hard was that it hit me so hard. For all the brilliant minds we as a society have imagined over the years, how could we never have imagined this one before now? And she’s not even imaginary, she’s real! And not only real, but has been real for ninety-eight years! And yet this is something that, as measured by mainstream film, we haven’t even been able to imagine.

You’ll do with this what you will, but for me it’s an object-lesson in the depth and power of our racial cultural programming, as well as a step toward the light. I am a white person who has had intellectually powerful black women around me, whom I greatly admired, my whole life, starting with my preschool and kindergarten teachers, and including close friends and members of my own family, as well of course as many of my students. And yet the type of representation that opened Hidden Figures is something that only fairly recently did it begin to dawn on me how starkly it was missing.

So, go see this movie! Take your kids to see it! Let them grow up easily imagining something that the American collective consciousness has hidden from itself for so long.

Think of a Brainy Black Woman in a Hollywood Film Sunday, Sep 25 2016 

So I’m psyched about Queen of Katwe (Disney), starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, based on the true story of young Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi, which just came out. I’m definitely gonna see it this week.

I am also looking forward to the release this winter of Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox), starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, based on the true story of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, and their foundational mathematical contributions to the US space program. I have never ever ever seen a black female mathematician in a major film before.

This got me thinking: in my entire life up til now, have I ever seen a film released by a major Hollywood studio that centered on a brainy black woman and her brainy pursuits? I’ve been musing on this for about 24 hours now. I thought of exactly one: Akeelah and the Bee.

Can you think of any others?

Update 9/29: I thought of two more candidates. They don’t have that same “this woman is taking over the world with her mind alone” quality as all of the above, but they do have something:

Home (20th Century Fox, 2015): it’s not a major theme of the film, but the generally resourceful and awesome main character, voiced by Rihanna, does at a key point figure out the mechanism of a piece of alien technology while boasting of her “A in geometry”…

A Raisin in the Sun (Columbia Pictures, 1961): Beneatha’s intellectual pretensions don’t exactly drive the plot, but they are pretty central to her character. If you want to see what I mean and are up for being made a little upset, click here (the “in my mother’s house…” scene if you know it).

I want more! Please help!

Update 1/7/17: Having sat on this blog post for a few months now, I feel that the previous update dilutes the point a bit. Akeelah and the Bee, Queen of Katwe, and Hidden Figures, are the only movies of their kind I can think of. (Per the description above: produced by Hollywood, centered on a brainy black woman and her brainy pursuits.) I earnestly want to know if more exist. I am very excited there have been 2 inside of 6 months.

If I ask for “that kind of movie” only without the requirement that the lead be black and female, then we are swimming in them: Good Will Hunting, Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, Beautiful Mind, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, … shall I keep going?

For a quick and dirty numerical sample of the status quo: here is a list, compiled by a random IMDB user, of “movies about geniuses.” I found it among the first few hits upon googling “movies about smart people.” On this list I see 35 distinct titles. (The list says 42 but I see 7 repeats.) Of these, by my count the “geniuses” include 32 white boys/men, 1 black man, 1 East Asian man, and 1 white woman.

The fact that I managed, scraping my memory, to find a movie (Home) centered on a black girl who at some point in the film does something cool with her brain, is irrelevant to this stark picture. (This is not a knock on Home, which I loved.) If we want to bring it into the conversation, then we should put it in the context of every movie centered on a character that at some point does something cool with their brain. This is a lot of movies, way too many to make any kind of list.

If I allow the character in question not to be the main character (as in Raisin in the Sun; and if I allow us to leave Hollywood, 2012’s Brooklyn Castle and 2002’s Spellbound come to mind), then we are talking about every movie containing a character with plausible intellectual aspirations. Again, way too many to start listing.

The upshot: representations of brainy black women in (Hollywood) film have been exceedingly, shockingly rare. If you have taught in any place that has black people, you know that brainy black women are not rare in real life. Our national culture has had a very limited imagination in this regard. So let’s all effing go see Hidden Figures as soon as we possibly can. Independent of all this, I’ve heard it’s very good.

Some Followup on “A Note to My Fellow White People” Sunday, Mar 17 2013 

If you were interested, challenged or otherwise engaged by my Note to My Fellow White People, I have come across a bunch of other things recently you will be interested in:

Here is the other video he refers to in the video:

Also a propos is this recent opinion piece in the NYT by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

I was talking in general about white people receiving feedback about race, but several people who commented took it (very reasonably) in the direction of how to have conversations about race in the classroom. In which case I have the following strong book recommendation:

High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Community, and Diversity

I am cross-posting my review of this book on goodreads.com:

Full disclosure: the author of the book is my dad. The high school featured in the book is the one I both attended and taught at.

THAT SAID.

This is a beautiful book. The author is a (white, Jewish) professor of philosophy at a university. The book chronicles his venture into teaching a class about race and racism at his local racially diverse public high school. It offers a model of what a functioning, productive cross-race conversation about race and racism can look like, in an era where (depressingly) this is still a rarity. It makes a case for the civic value of integrated public education in an era where we seem to be forgetting that education even has a civic purpose.

It belongs broadly to the genre of teaching memoirs, along with books like Holler if You Hear Me. But two related features distinguish it in this genre:

(1) The author is a serious scholar. Unsurprisingly, then, the content of the course he taught features heavily in the book. So this teaching memoir also functions, with no cost to readability, as a scholarly book about race. (As an aside, I am very proud of him on the readability front. It was a real stretch for him to write a book whose style didn’t place a technical burden on the reader, and it took a lot of rewrites, and help from his editor, but he totally pulled it off!)

(2) The genre is characterized by taking students seriously as moral and psychological beings. That’s one of its strengths as a genre as a whole. But this is the first book I’ve read that takes students equally seriously as intellects. The author often writes with plain admiration for his students’ ideas. This may be my favorite feature of all. Developing students as minds is, after all, the point of education. So it strikes me as surprising that it’s so rare for a memoir about the lived experience of teaching to give such loving attention to what those minds produce.

A Note to My Fellow White People Friday, Jan 18 2013 

I haven’t talked openly about race or racial difference on this blog before, but I actually think about it a lot. One of the most damning legacies of our racist history has been systematic libel against the minds of black and brown children (and adults for that matter). Meanwhile, in our culture, math is the ultimate signifier of intelligence. So the math classroom has heightened power, both to inflict injustice and to rectify it. Given this, plus the diversity of teachers and students, a comfortable cross-race conversation about racial matters is a must for the profession. In the spirit of contributing to that conversation, I offer

A Note to My Fellow White People

Guys, we have to chill out a little. It has to be possible for somebody to say to you, “that was ignorant,” or “that was racially offensive,” or even “that was racist,” without you flipping out, getting offended or defensive, or needing to be reassured you are not a horrible person. It’s not a good look, on any level: it’s not dignified, and it makes it impossible to have a productive conversation about race across racial lines.

I was at a cafe a couple months back trying to get some schoolwork done when I found myself distracted by a profoundly uncomfortable conversation at the next table. There was a white man in his early 50s and two black women, one close to his age and one closer to mine. They seemed to be sharing a familiar and friendly meal. Things started to go south when the man admitted to being afraid of a young black man on the street. The younger of the women said something to the effect of, “you might have work to do on that.”

Her tone was warm: she wasn’t being accusatory but rather seemed to be offering her words in the spirit of holding her friend to a high standard. But the man immediately became anxious, although his face and words were all smiles and jokes. His first response was that white people make him more uncomfortable than black people, as though he could re-establish his lost racial coolness with sufficiently loud declamations of prejudice against white people.

The women weren’t having it. “You’re being ignorant against white people now.” I interpreted their response as saying, “you can’t get off the hook with this diversionary tactic.” But he kept trying. His anxiety was as audible to me as a fire alarm, even when he wasn’t talking. I tried to concentrate on my math but I couldn’t get anything done.

Things stayed in this state, a tense, anxious impasse overlaid by a thin layer of too-eager conviviality and jokes, for about 20 minutes, till they got up to leave, no noticeable progress having been made in the conversation. At this point the man, in that same overly-eager joking tone, almost-but-not-quite-explicitly asked for reassurance that everybody was still his friend. They gave him the reassurance. On their way out, the younger woman leaned over to my table and apologized for her “ignorant friend.”

I’m not telling you this story to put the man down or call him ignorant. I don’t remember the context of the conversation and I don’t have my own opinion about it. Also, I think in all likelihood he’s a completely nice and decent person, and so are the women.

The point of the story is the man’s intense anxiety at being put on the spot racially, and the way that anxiety dominated both the conversation and its goals (so that what started as an attempt to raise consciousness was aborted, and turned into a reassurance fest), and the social and public space (so that the younger woman felt the need to apologize to a neighboring table).

Now I don’t fail to have empathy for him. If you are a white person with a modicum of sense and decency, you know that you are the beneficiary of an unjust history. (Shout out to Louis CK.) Just knowing that you’re benefiting is already a little uncomfortable to begin with. Feeling like you might be participating in that injustice can make the discomfort acute. I’ve been there many times.

But, guys, we’ve got to get it together! It is necessary to learn how to be with that discomfort and still function. First of all, the story I just told you is about a grown-a** man! Trying to prove how un-racist you are, and then needing to be coddled and preened so that you know the trouble is past, is unbefitting of the dignity of an adult. So is any other response aimed at removing the source of your discomfort rather than tolerating it – throwing a fit, acting defensive or offended, etc. Shouldn’t we aspire to some grace here?

Secondly, it makes it impossible for the conversation to advance! If we want to avoid participating in injustice we have to be willing to tolerate the possibility that we already are participating. Otherwise how will we learn what to avoid? In the anecdote I’ve recounted here, the man’s anxiety shut down the ability of the conversation to make any progress. He was blessed with friends who were willing to hold him to a higher standard and he was too busy freaking out to get the benefit of that! The bottom line question is, would you rather spend your time and energy proving how un-racist you are, or would you actually like to learn how to make the world better?

All of this puts me in mind of a much more public incident. In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the Dept. of Justice Black History Month program in which he said that Americans are afraid to talk about race and called upon us to do better. Multiple commentators immediately jumped down his throat.

Thereby proving his point.

The Attorney General made an effort to hold the nation to a higher standard. At the time, we didn’t react with grace or manifest any interest in growing.

How about now?

Featured comment

Aiza:

IMO the best thing white teachers, or any teachers who find themselves teaching classes of black/brown students can do is to constantly hold their students to the same high standards they would hold their own biological children to. Giving these kids a high standard education is one of the few ways to equip these kids to deal with racism.