“Taking a Knee in Math Education”: Danny Martin’s NCTM talk, partially transcribed

Annual Meeting and Exposition – National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

At the most recent NCTM Annual convention, Prof. Danny Martin gave a talk titled “Taking A Knee in Math Education.” (See Annie and Wendy’s posts for a summary of the talk.) It’s pretty dense at times, and he hasn’t yet published (as far as I can tell) on the second half of the talk, which focuses on what he calls a “black liberatory fantasy” of math education. I wanted a transcript of the talk to refer back to and take a closer look at, and I figured that maybe others would find that useful too. 

I started transcribing from around 35 minutes into the talk.


Equity for black learners in math education is a delusion — a compromise consistent with other historical compromises; undergirded by antiblackness; rooted in the fictions and fantasies of white imaginaries and white benevolence; held hostage by white sensibilities and sensitivities; and characterized, at best, by incremental changes that do little to threaten the maintenance of white supremacy and racial hierarchies inside or outside of mathematics education.

Given this position what do I propose as a different framing and vision of math education for black children — one committed to black self-determination, black liberation and black joy?

In the last part of this presentation I draw from recent work with two colleagues where we engage in what we are calling liberatory fantasy. Specifically, black liberatory fantasy, in order to imagine what we’re calling a black liberatory mathematics education.

We define black liberatory mathematics education as the framing and practice of math education that allows black learners to flourish in their humanity and brilliance, unfettered by whiteness, white supremacy and anti-blackness. We view liberation as a means to a radical end rather than an end in itself. We imagine a world in which our relationality is not to whiteness, anti-blackness, systemic violence, a world in which we are not defined by survival, resistance and a fight for freedom. We imagine a world in which we define ourselves, our joys and our desires in infinite multiplicities and in which we are committed to individual and collective black fulfillment.

In planting the seeds — the initial seeds — of BLM education, we draw inspiration from black liberatory struggles of the past such as the Black Panther 10 Point program as well as recent programs like Black Lives Matter where radical demands have been made within and against racial capitalism and state violence against black people.

We note that some contemporary efforts have been made to address the needs of black students in mathematics education including work that has framed math in terms of civil rights and citizenship and work that focused on culturally specific pedagogy. However in our view these approaches share a focus on liberal notions of reform and inclusion into the system of existing math education.

We are not suggesting here that there be a singular black liberatory mathematics education and we recognize that framings under this umbrella could be appropriated in many ways — even in ways that support the existing system of math education

Our goal here is to offer one perspective in the spirit of liberatory fantasy moving beyond efforts that focus on incremental change that have historically framed math education for black learners in ways that are deferential to white logics, white imaginaries, white sensitivities and white benevolence.

In terms of framing, a black liberatory math education prioritizes liberation over integration and freedom. This form of math education is skeptical of liberal notions of inclusion and equity, of appeals to democracy and citizenship, neoliberal multiculturalism and refuses all forms of systemic violence against black learners.

Moreover we recognize that freedom is never free. The freedom to be included in and to participate in anti-black spaces characterized by systemic violence is not freedom. We are cognizant that in calling for and framing a black liberatory math education we risk valorizing mathematics in a way that maintains its status and power. However our position is aligned with S.E. Anderson who in 1970 expressed that black people should learn mathematics not because of American capitalism’s advanced forms of technology require this background but because black liberation struggle against the capitalistic system requires this knowledge.

A second critical component of black liberatory education is the ability to exercise the right of refusal of the dominant education system of math education institutions and organizations that maintain their status as white institutional spaces and schooling practices and policies that instantiate anti-black violence and white supremacist orientations. Reformists often use this as a cover for the ongoing brutality of education against black learners. In this sense, reforms in math education can be viewed as sustaining the dehumanization process because these reforms are beholden to the overall anti-black system in which math education is embedded. The goal of reform is slight modification of teaching, curriculum and assessment processes, not radical dismantling. Recognizing that many children are seemingly trapped and imprisoned by the dominant system of math education we suggest resistance in the form of refusal in and refusal of.

Principle refusal in the existing system of math education will ultimately take black people to the precipice of refusal of the system. Examples of refusal in the existing system include — and its coincident that we see this nowadays — sit-ins, walkouts, and boycotts locally and nationally should be employed by black children and parents as a way to disrupt anti-black violence and dehumanization in math education. Inclusion into anti-black spaces should not be the goal of these walkouts and boycotts. Black parents and caregivers should also protest under-assessments and nullifications of their children’s abilities and refuse the tracking of black children to lower level and remedial tracks. Black parents  should refuse their children’s participation in remediation and research programs that are premised on deficit orientations and are designed to diagnose, repair and remediate — fix — black children.

These calls for refusal should not be construed with a call for segregation or racial isolation. Just as we are calling for humanizing treatment of black people we expect black people will recognize and value the humanity of others.

With respect to everyday practice: we suggest that a black liberatory math education is designed and directed first and foremost by liberation-seeking black people including parents, caregivers, community members, black teachers, and black students.

Within this new system we believe that every black child should learn mathematics for the purpose of understanding the history of black people of the United States. A k-12 curriculum — or several — devoted to the numbers of black life and history would at a minimum: help black children to understand black peoples’ incorporation into US society, quantify the ways in which the US racial state and economy were built on the labor of black people, and understand the disparate impact of systems and structures like education and prisons on the lives of black people.

We do not propose the implementation of curricula in top-down fashion nor suggest that it’s the only way to proceed. However we do believe that knowledge of self is key in meaningful math education, and the spirit of self-determination in a curriculum in support of a black liberatory math education should be co-developed first and foremost by liberation-seeking black people including parents, caregivers, community members and black students. We propose annual community reviews of all math curricula and assessments used with black children.

We propose that black children be taught by knowledgeable, liberation-seeking black teachers and independent community-controlled schools that stress collectivity and black humanity. All teachers, black and non-black, should be vetted by black parents, community members and children. Teachers should be required to live in or near the neighborhoods where they teach, and required to take training in restorative justice practices.

Drawing again on Anderson, we propose that free tutoring and math classes in community settings that are open to adults and children outside of school context, black college students and knowledgeable community members would teach these classes. Black college students with strong knowledge of math for example would serve weekend and summer internships in black communities, paid for with work study and summer research funds.

We propose the development of easy to understand and up-to-date resources such as a black parent’s guide to math education that allows black parents and caregivers to understand how school mathematics functions from many different perspectives including: curricular, assessment, teaching, and how practices like tracking and teacher recommendation for gifted programs are used against black children. Relatedly, we propose distributing comprehensive easy to read pamphlets which explain the pitfalls of financial shortcuts found within the world of the black consumer.

We propose that by the time they finish elementary, middle and high schools, all black children engage in at least one capstone project where they apply mathematics to propose solutions to challenges faced by black children — by black people. We propose that black parents, community members and children be consulted on community development projects so they can suggest ways to embed culturally relevant mathematics installations and activities in community spaces such as parks, playgrounds, barber shops, beauty salons, bus stops, community centers, community gathering spaces, health services, waiting rooms, neighborhood museums and other such contexts.

In stating these minimal components of a black liberatory math education we also assert that these are necessary but not sufficient. Revolutionary change and the building of a new and different system requires a commitment to such components.

Some people might say that my perspective is too pessimistic. [laughs] They will say that it ignores the good will of allies in the ongoing struggle for black liberation. They will point to the gains made in civil rights over the past few decades. In response, I offer this analysis of civil rights by Carol Anderson, professor of African American Studies at Emory:

She says in her book “Eyes Off the Prize”:

How could all of the blood, all of the courage, and all of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement still leave in its wake a nation whose schools are more segregated than ever, where more than half of all black children live in poverty, and where the life expectancy of African Americans has actually declined? And how could a movement with so much promise still leave more than six million African Americans trapped and dying in the “underclass”? The answer lies, I believe, not so much in the well-documented struggle for civil rights, but in the little known, but infinitely more important, struggle for human rights.”

For too long civil rights has been heralded as the prize for black equality. Yet those rights no matter how bitterly fought for could only speak to the overt political and legal discrimination that African Americans faced. Human rights, on the other hand, especially as articulated by the United Nations…had the language and philosophical power to address not only the legal inequity that African Americans endured, but also the education, health care, housing and employment need that haunted the Black community.”

It turns out, the civil rights, the prize, was historical compromise, a historical compromise from a demand for human rights. Equity is a similar compromise in math education.

In conclusion, I say that mainstream math education has traditionally invited black people to participate on its terms. Expecting this system to reform itself from its foundational purposes and fundamental character to a new state of validating and valuing the humanity of of black people is unrealistic in the face of evidence otherwise. Traditional discourses of equity and inclusion have been self-serving within liberal white imaginaries, white supremacy and anti-blackness. They have been inadequate for black liberation. The kinds of changes advocated for within mainstream math education discourses are welcomed and accommodated within the self-correcting systems of white supremacy and anti-blackness because they represent no real threat to these systems. Much in the same way that one can not fix capitalism, only replace it with a different system, because capitalism will seek to exploit, under any conditions or threats, liberation-seeking black people will recognize that mainstream math education cannot be fixed in service to black liberation.

Citing W.E.B. Du Bois, historian Ibrahim X. Kendi expressed the following: Instead of using our energy to break down the walls of white institutions, why not use our energy to refurbish our own? I will add that we must continue to find ways to take a knee on behalf of black children and in service to black liberations. Thank you.


Q: Thank you Dr Martin for your talk and for all of your wisdom all the time. Could you maybe…in your framework could you maybe say like a little bit about where you think people should start like this room is full of people who might be interested in doing this with different intersections like are there things that you think people could do to start doing this work?

A: I always have this response to what I’ve been called solution-on-demand — I don’t think you’re doing that right now.

Well, but I would say, Step Number One, Step Zero even, would be to hear me, first of all, to just hear me open ears, open heart, let it soak in, it may not be today, maybe tomorrow, maybe a week from now, maybe a month from then. But just hear me first of all. What am I saying? Why am I saying it? I think that’s Step One: what sense are you making of it?

Follow up. If you have questions about something I’ve said, ask for a clarification so we can begin a conversation.

In terms of the pragmatics of what do I do when I go back tomorrow: Obviously I can’t tell any particular person what they should do because I don’t know the context the children and I don’t want to essentialize whiteness, white people, black people, blackness…

But maybe Step One after Step Zero is sort of the internal work. The self-reflective work. One simple question is when you go back to a classroom with black children you have to ask yourself, why am I here? Why am i here? We have pre-service students at UIC Chicago who say that I’m here because I love all children, and it’s not true. It’s absolutely not true. And as hard as that may be to hear and to think about and to process, there are some of us in this room, despite all of our best intentions, who don’t love all children. And particularly we don’t love all black children for whatever reasons. And those reasons can be found internally. I think one has to come to grips with that. Why am I here? Because certainly the children are asking. Why are you here? What purpose are you going to serve in my life?

So I think it’s hearing me, reflecting on the self, and working with those parents, valuing and respecting and seeing their humanity through all the things that I mentioned in the talk. If you can’t get over your ability to see black children as children, and allow them to be children, to make mistakes, to not have to rip up their paper in their presence, to not have to be upset — and I’m not romanticizing — to be upset because someone didn’t put away their cell phone that it escalates to the police and arrest. There’s a lot of work in between that thought and that action. So a lot of it comes back to this.

And we don’t have the utopia. We don’t have the system that I’m talking about. So it’s the work in the current thing. So you have to find ways in your own context to refuse inside the system. There are risks involved, clearly. There is risk involved. People have to decide what level of risk they want to do.

So I could keep going on and on and move out to the bigger and bigger and bigger, but a lot of folks want those take home answers and I can’t give take home answers, but I can say, think about these issues and how they might apply. Twist them and turn them in whatever way you think is oriented in the direction of black liberation, liberation of black children and people.

Black children should not have to go to school and experience the kinds of violence that we know that they experience. There is no road to justice. Anybody that talks about a road to justice is not really interested in justice. Justice is right here, right now, in this moment. I don’t have to travel a road to get to equity. It’s here! It’s here!

So I could go on, but you get the idea.

Q: Dr. Martin again, thank you for your presentation. Do you have any examples of programs either in or out of school that you could point to that might exemplify what you’ve been talking about?

A: There are some traditions, independent black schools obviously, and you (to the questioner) know a lot about those.

And there are some efforts that are sort of on the cusp because again if we had the answer we would be doing it.

The Algebra Project is an interesting — really interesting — context in the sense of its underpinnings, its commitment to black life, civil rights, black humanity. There are things that could be done differently, clearly.

Some of the work that’s been done with the production of scholars in HBCUs in mathematics for example. Not the fact that we’re trying to fit into the system but the work that those people have undertaken. Dr. Shabazz. We learned about some folks here at Howard. Those efforts that people create those counter-spaces and it might not be well-publicized in the news, EdWeek, etc. but there are probably many examples that we’re not aware of where people are working locally and doing these things, working with groups of black children. I’ve done Saturday programs, “math for moms,” working with black mothers and other mothers to help them help their children in ways that they think are effective.

I think there is scholarship that needs to take place. There are folks like myself, like my colleague here and other colleagues — we need to be doing work where we are. We’re in the academy. We need to be countering the knowledge production that says black children come to school with no pre-mathematical knowledge for example. The teacher in the classroom, the parents — they can’t counter that up close. We can.

So our writing, our voice, is another thing that can be doing some work. But I think it can be multiple venues, big and small, Algebra Project is the essence, the idea of that, liberatory Bob Moses own historical beginnings, Saturday community-based programs, taking over community spaces and trying to figure out how to make those culturally relevant as I said, being involved in the redevelopment of your community, gentrification not to be involved in that, but to say stop, we refuse this, we want other options and other kinds of things, and then it gets very personal too.

So this notion of refusal, I’ve said this many many times. I have a five year old on the verge of going to Kindergarten. Very nervous, very very nervous. Five year old male child. And it’s not giving up on public education because the public education that we have now is the public education that many children don’t deserve. We need new and different public education. We may have to at some point homeschool him. Because my level of trust in the system — not you as individuals — but in the system is getting lower and lower every day. I don’t want to come home one day and find that my precocious brilliant son is sitting in the principal’s office in handcuffs because of some silliness, some anti-black silliness.

So I think that individual black families to the degree that they can (if they don’t have the resources other people should be supporting them) have to make tough decisions to go against many of the things that we’ve been led to believe we should be following to be, you know, to be “American.” Those lures are very powerful. Democracy. Citizenship. You can problematize every one of those. There’s black citizenship, and there’s American citizenship, and those are not the same and those have never been the same.

Democracy. Democracy for whom? Look at the history of democracy for us. It’s not something we should be swallowing in a non-critical way. We have to make individual decisions, we have to look at efforts like the big things, the community things, it’s multi-faceted.

And if we had the answer we’d be doing it yesterday, but obviously we have one system and that might be part of the problem. I’m not suggesting chargers or anything of that nature, but if the response is — what are you going to do with all those black kids if you take them out of the system. Think about that response for a second. It says, black people have no option, no alternatives, but to go back to the system that is dehumanizing. That makes no sense to me! That makes absolutely no sense! When you have cornered a people where they have nothing else except to go back to the fire, that people might be in trouble. They might be in trouble.

Q: My name is Lindsey Black and I’m an elementary teacher in the DC area. I really appreciate your insights in the topic at hand. I specifically appreciated your identification of a liberation seeking black teacher. I was wondering if you could highlight what the vetting process would be like to find a liberation-seeking black teacher.

A: So one thing we know is that we lose a lot of potential black teachers. They come to the universities, struggle for various reasons, all sorts of institutional structural reasons, and they’re committed to black people, black children, black joy, but the things we’ve set up to vet them at that level, take them in a different direction.

We know that there are people there who are interested in black people’s humanity — humanity. We need to find ways to keep those folks engaged. Not rescue them, not save them, but keep them engaged. Somehow, some way. And it’s difficult work.

The vetting process beyond that? As I said, we need to find ways and avenues for parents to be at that front, first, second, third, level to say no way — or, yes way, we feel comfortable with this teacher teaching our children. I’m turning my child over to you 8, 9 hours a day, expecting them to be safe, expecting them to learn and grow, etc. I need to have a say in that.

Not necessarily just the selected few, but come out to a community meeting, fill up a room like this. Why do you want to teach in this school? I know it’s not in our existing system, but this is the liberatory fantasy beast. Be vetted by the black children! Why can’t black children be allowed to have conversations with the people who might be teaching them at some point — of all ages. Who are you? Where do you come from? Why do you want to teach me? What do you know about me? What do you know about my people? What do you know about my neighborhood? What do you think about me? Do you think I’m brilliant? Tell me! Do you think I’m brilliant?

“Umm well…” No, no no, no, it’s yes or no. It’s yes, or no.

We can fantasize in many different ways and there are some practicalities to it as well. I think parents should be right there. One, first line of defense. It’s not the parent, it’s the caregiver. Somebody’s gotta do the vetting. Alright. I know we have these systems and structures where other people do the vetting for us, but I have to raise the question: is this good enough? I don’t think it is. Well-intentioned, you do the hard work everyday, it’s not about individuals, it’s about structures and systems. And the system that we have, in my view, is not the one that is committed to black liberation, and to black people and to black communities. And that may be trouble for other children and groups as well, and people have to fight those fights.

Thank you.

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