Radical Listening? Liberation Speaking.

I spent time over an afternoon and a morning to listen to a talk by a Mathemetics Education scholar, Dr. Danny Martin of The University of Illinois at Chicago. He spoke at the Annual Meeting of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in April 2018. His talk plus the question and answer portion lasted about one hour. The video was brought to my attention by education journalist, Melinda Anderson, on Twitter.

The title: Taking a Knee in Mathematics Education, already says a lot. Much of Dr. Martin’s research is focused on developing responsive, liberatory mathematics education for African-American children. What struck me about this talk was how deeply it spoke to me although I neither teach math nor work with more than a handful of Black students of various nationalities.

Dr. Martin is absolutely unyielding in his commitment to securing the best mathematics classroom experiences for African-American children.  After providing the historical context for specifically addressing the needs of Black children in American public school systems, he provided specific and yes, painful examples of the ways in which Black children are routinely dehumanized by curricula, assessments, teacher attitudes and school systems rooted in white supremacy. He documents how American public school systems were never designed to support or encourage Black students’ brilliance, drive and achievement and how this specifically plays out in math class at all levels.

There were two particular areas where Dr. Martin confronted me with new perspectives I hadn’t considered fully before: the view of inclusion as insufficient for achieving better outcomes and a vision of Black Liberatory Mathematics as a means to create the forms of math education genuinely designed for Black children’s achievement and advancement in the subject area.

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I grew up in a household where integration was held up as the goal towards which we, Blacks, whites and everybody else should be marching. I moved through my schooling believing that gaining admission, adding to the diversity, getting a seat in the auditorium (if not at the decision-making table) in predominantly white institutions best demonstrated my own and my group’s steady progress towards equity. Given that, to hear Dr. Martin claim that inclusion narratives often prove to be pacifying compromises which keep white supremacist structures firmly in place caused me to sit up and take note.

As he illustrated what successful mathematics education that recognizes and fosters Black brilliance could look and feel like, I was alerted to a vision I had not yet encountered. Dr. Martin described a framework, Black Liberatory Mathematics, which draws on liberatory fantasy in articulating an educational approach that intentionally discards whiteness as the primary reference point and measuring stick.

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When addressing the usual critiques of these ideas, Dr. Martin is clear that his focus will remain on Black children and their learning experiences in public schools and reiterates that more moderate attempts to tweak curricula and adjust assessments become tools to stave off the dismantling of white supremacist structures in education systems. And to this end he emphasizes a need for refusal in and of visibly dehumanizing systems as necessary forms of resistance to be practiced by parents, caregivers, students and teachers.

Perhaps what I found so refreshing about Dr. Martin’s address was his insistence on centering Black children and their flourishing in his research and practice. His advocacy is fierce, unapologetic and precise. And his bravery in articulating a way forward that does not aim to first assuage white sensibilities came as a little shock to my system but then as a useful corrective to my previous understandings. While the term ‘white supremacy’ has become a fairly standard one in my recent conversations, Dr. Martin’s talk reminded me of how much work I still have ahead in terms of seeking liberation, in my classroom as much as in the communities to which I belong.

During the question and answer portion, he asserts that “inclusion is not a counterweight to anti-blackness and white supremacy.” In light of media reports across mainstream and social media the evidence of this reality in various forms is staggering. One teacher asked about how to begin engaging in this work and his response was this: “First, just hear me.” He encouraged the teacher to spend time with the ideas presented and see how they resonate, raise questions, find footing. And then suggested that she really engage in the inner work as asking herself: “Why am I here?” and consider carefully what that means for the students in front of her.

As perhaps the sole Black teacher that many of my students may have in their school careers, I too, must ask myself “Why am I here?” and think about what gifts I bring to my works as well as the biases I may be harboring which keep me from offering students the best that they deserve. My gratitude to Dr. Danny Martin is great for opening my eyes to fresh perspectives for my own practice and the field of education in general. I encourage you to listen to his whole speech. It will not disappoint.


Screenshots (c) Spelic