Posts Tagged ‘David Wells’

Benjamin Banneker, America’s First Black Mathematician

October 26, 2018

October is Black History Month, and there’s a concern to find and publicise the scientific achievements of Black people. Leafing through David Wells’ The Penguin Book of Curious and Interesting Mathematics (London: Penguin 1997), I found this chapter about the pioneering Black American mathematician, Benjamin Banneker. I should warn readers that the quotation seems to come from a rather dated text, and uses the term ‘Negro’, which many Black people don’t like. However, don’t let it put you off the passage, which is well worth reading and clearly comes from someone profoundly impressed by Banneker’s achievements.

‘There is much to admire in the life of Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806). He was the first American Negro mathematician; he published a very meritorious almanac from 1792 to 1806, making his own astronomical calculations; using a borrowed watch as a model, he constructed entirely from hard wood a clock that served as a reliable timepiece for over twenty years; he won the enthusiastic praise of Thomas Jefferson, who was then the Secretary of State; he served as a surveyor on the Commission appointed to determine the boundaries of the District of Columbia; he was known far and wide for his ability in solving difficult arithmetical problems and mathematical puzzles quickly and accurately. These achievements are all the more remarkable in that he had almost no formal schooling and was therefore largely self-taught, studying his mathematics and astronomy from borrowed books while he worked for a living as a farmer.

‘But laudable as all the accomplishments of Benjamin Banneker mentioned above are, there is a further item that perhaps draws stronger applause. In his almanac of 1793, he included a proposal for the establishment of the office of Secretary of Peace in the President’s Cabinet, and laid out an idealistic pacifist plan to insure national peace. Every country in the world has the equivalent of a Secretary of War. Had Benjamin Banneker’s proposal been sufficiently heeded, the United States of America might have been the first country to have a Secretary of Peace! The possibility of realizing this honour still exists – and the time for it is overripe.’ (p. 97).

He must have been an amazing man, not just intelligent, but also highly determined to educated himself and rise so far in American society at a time when Blacks were enslaved and heavily discriminated against, even as free people. And he clearly puts the lie to the belief that Blacks are automatically thicker than everyone else, although the racists now are careful not to state this quite so explicitly.

Last Sunday, the Doctor and her friends traveled back to ’50s America to meet Rosa Parks. Parks was the lady of colour, whose refusal to stand for a White passenger started the bus boycott that became one of the major starting points of the Civil Rights movement. And on the way, they also met Dr. Martin Luther King, who was then a pastor at her local church. It was good, inspiring stuff, co-written by prize-winning children’s writer, Malorie Blackman. Who is herself Black.

The Doctor, as he/she flies back and forth across time, regularly meets the great figures of the past, like Shakespeare, Richard the Lionheart and so on. In a David Tennant story, the Doctor travels back in time to Pompeii, just before it erupts. This is caused by the presence of aliens, made of stone, deep within the volcano. Bending the laws of time, he saves one Roman who would otherwise have been destined to perish. This is a young man, who wants to grow up to be a philosopher. The Doctor rescues him, and encourages him to pursue his dream of studying the deep nature of reality. If the Beeb ever decides they want to try a similar storyline in which the Doctor meets a Black scientist or mathematician of the past, looking at this they should choose Banneker.

And we definitely, definitely need his plan for a Secretary of State. The various departments and ministries of war have no been renamed ‘Defence’ following World War II, at least in the West. But the world’s countries are just as belligerent, and the wars now being fought by the West in the Middle East are still for reasons of economic imperialism, however much they’re being sold to the public as humanitarian interventions.

And it’s all the more pressing now that we have governments in America and Britain determined to sell arms to the bloodiest of dictators and despots. Trump is withdrawing from an anti-nuclear treaty with Russia and gearing up for an invasion of Iran.

We’ve had a Black president in the shape of Barack Obama, but Banneker’s dream is still to be realized. Perhaps if more people became aware of him and his achievements, more people would come to support a Secretary of Peace. And perhaps ending wars before they could even begin.