Diary of a Black Mathematical Modeller: Why Black Heroes Matter

Diary of a Black Mathematical Modeller: Why Black Heroes Matter

Today we heard the sad news of the passing of Chadwick Bosman – the star of the film Black Panther. The film though fictional, had a great cultural impact all over world and across many fields. For the final Aperiodical Big Internet Math Off – my maths video feature a mathematical model of the Black Panther’s suit!

So why do Black Heroes Matter even fictional ones? Well – when I was a mathematics undergraduate ( 30 years ago), I did an industrial placement at a RAF base in Cambridgeshire. At this base is where I built my first monte-carlo simulation model. Now I met some great people there but I was the only black person within 10 miles. This did not discourage me as I went there to learn how to apply mathematics to the real world. My first 5 months was very challenging. My manager would constantly criticise the standard of my work and tell me that I am a poor mathematician. This would of been about 5 years after my parents told me that “You don’t need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician!”. At the age of 20, I was still at that age where I didn’t believe what my parents were telling me. So I listen to my manager’s views over my parents and I let her opinion of me sink into my inner soul. I believed that I was not good enough, I never thought that this heavy slap down had anything to do with my race. On the last day before Christmas vacation – I spoke to my fellow student about our RAF experience so far. I asked her “How is your placement here going?” . She replied “Very good – how about you?” – “Mine is going badly [Mrs K] doesn’t like my work and questions my ability to be a mathematician?” I said. My fellow student looked shocked and said this “Really! Well us females all went about dinner and [Mrs K] said that you are one of the best mathematicians she has ever seen!” I was shocked to here this and questioned why did she bend over backwards to discourage me! Puzzled and confused I went home for the Christmas vacation. During this time I watched a film called “In the Heat of the Night” starring Sidney Poitier. This was the first time I saw a “Black Hero” on TV who was not a sportsperson or singer. Sidney Poitier character – Mr Tibbs, used his intelligence, knowledge and expertise to solve a murder case despite opposition and discouragement from Southern state Police officers and Town’s residents. They clearly didn’t want him there. In one scene he was called a derogative term “is that what they call you?”- and then Sidney Poitier replied “They call me Mr Tibbs” – inspirational! I realise why [Mrs K] was the way she was with me – the best mathematician in her face was Black and she didn’t like it at all. I went back to the RAF base with a renewal confidence and produce my best mathematical model which 30 years on I am proud of. Little did [Mrs K] knew that I she was actually trying to discourage the future President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications.

Discouragement and marginalising Black talent has not gone away. When my youngest son was at his secondary school – they consider him as a C/D grade student and would tell him so. My son would walk around school thinking he was a failure.  However, he ended up getting A/A* through investment and encouragement from my wife and myself. A couple of years later, he got 168 UCAS points and now he is off to Warwick University.

Black Heroes Matter whether real or fictional on the big screen.

Rest in Peace Chadwick Bosman you touched so many lives to live their God given dreams.