Posts Tagged ‘Malorie Blackman’

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.

Zarjaz! New Children’s Laureate Backs the Four-Colour Funnies!

June 5, 2013

Britain’s new children’s laureate, the Black writer Malorie Blackman, was on breakfast TV this morning talking about her views, work and desire to encourage more children to read. She came across as an extremely intelligent and dynamic ambassador for literature for children. She said she wanted every child in the UK to get a library card. This is undoubtedly, obviously a good thing – libraries are an essential for any civilised society, and encouraging them to use them is a major step in encouraging children not only to read, but to enjoy litaracy and learning. Another of her ideas is to set up a scheme whereby children can be encouraged to produce a piece of art, poetry, drama or music inspired by something they’ve read, and shown on the web. What cheered me the most, however, was that she defended comics as a means for getting children, particularly boys to read. The two BBC hosts, Bill Turnbull and Susannah Reed, asked her about the way boys stop reading. Blackman stated it was because they had so many other things competing for their attention, and that they were also reading for exams. She was keen to encourage boys to keep on reading, and remarked that comics and graphic novels were some of the things boys did continue to read. She and Susannah Reed particularly noted that the graphic novels V for Vendetta and Watchmen contained the type of gritty issues Blackman’s works also discussed.

I fully support her comments about the power of comics to get people reading. Much of the literature I read when I was a child consisted of the four-colour funnies and their British equivalents – a lot of Marvel comics, but also British mags like Action, Battle, their predecessor, Valiant, and the humour comics Whizzer and Chips, Cheeky, the Dandy and the Beano, and, of course, the mighty 2000 AD. They gave me access to a world of fun, adventure and wonder. They also had an educational value. Marvel’s Thor obviously drew on Norse mythology, which encouraged me to read more about that. The heroes of many of Marvel’s strips were scientists: Peter Parker of Spiderman, Bruce Banner of the Incredible Hulk, and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. Their adventures were science fictional. They travelled to alternative dimensions, or different worlds in far-flung galaxies, and this did help encourage my own early interest in science, astronomy and space. I first heard of the Planck Constant in the pages of Hulk Comic. This was in a series of adventures in which the mighty green one shrunk until he was smaller than the above smallest unit of measurement, and so fell through the fabric of the universe onto a world in a subatomic universe. Many comics contained adaptations of classic SF and Fantasy stories, such as Conan. These encouraged their readers to seek out and read the original books. They also encourage a form of artistic appreciation, as people recognised and looked for the work of their favourite artists. Barry Windsor-Smith, who drew many of the Conan strips, is one of the very best known, as is Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko in Marvel. Over this side of the Pond the great comic book artists include Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Steve Moore, Mike McMahon, Dave Gibbons and Glen Fabry, as well as the Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra, to name only a few. The comics world just about encircles the planet, and their readers also have a taste for exploring the pictorial, fictional worlds of other nations and cultures. The great French comic artist and author, Moebius, aka Jean Giraud, was also read and received high acclaim amongst anglo-phone comics fans, and there is an English language version of the French SF comic anthology, Metal Hurlant, which he helped found. This interest in other cultures’ comics helped launch Japanese Manga comics in America and Europe.

Now I have to say that I never got on with V for Vendetta nor Watchmen. I didn’t really like the gritty realism of which they were apart, and stopped reading comics in the ’90s as they seemed a bit too bleak and grim. I far prefered lighter adventure material. The moral assumptions behind Watchmen, or at least the Watchmen film, are also highly questionable. A few years ago the Conservative Neo-Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, strongly criticsed the morality in Watchmen and showed that it actually didn’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, the two novel’s writer, Alan Moore, is still one of the finest working today and has done much to raise comics to the level of a respected literary medium. Comics can do a brilliant job of entertaining, amusing, provoking and stimulating children’s – and adult’s minds. Blackman is right in that they do encourage children, especially boys, to read. And so her comments are not only welcome, they are, as the great green editor of 2000 AD would say, ‘Zarjaz!’. I recommend her for enrolment in the Squax dek Thargo (Friends of Tharg) for her appreciation of thrill-power.