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Facing Deep Isolation as an Accomplished Black Mathematician

A note to those feeling “only-ness”

I recently read the article For a Black Mathematician, What It’s Like to Be the ‘Only One’ by Amy Harton in the New York Times. It features distinguished African American Mathematician Edray Goins and his 20-year obstacle course through research universities as the only black math doctorate. As one of three African-Americans ever to have received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Stanford, Dr. Goins is exceptional and stands among a mere dozen or so black mathematicians out of almost 2,000 tenured faculty members in the nation’s top 50 math departments. 

Due to the subtle ostracism endured from research colleagues at near every turn merely for being the only black math professor at these top-tier institutions, Dr. Goins grew weary and finally had enough. Remarkably and perhaps sadly, this academic trailblazer chose to leave his tenured position at a major university in favor of teaching math in a liberal arts college. The University’s loss is the liberal arts college’s fortuitous gain. It is my hope that a re-inspired Dr. Goins will in turn inspire countless young collegians with both his intellectual prowess and his compelling and wrenching story.  Dr. Goins’ accomplishments have changed the trajectory of history by reshaping academic pathways for future generations. His achievement of a doctorate in mathematics will serve to eliminate doubt about what black men can achieve.

As the daughter of a Haitian immigrant, I have felt the effects of this only-ness in my career, as well. And, while these experiences have been difficult, they have helped me to grow stronger and more determined to support student success and unlock the learning potential of every child, regardless of what they look like or what zip code they are from. I look back to a moment in 2012 when I traveled to Silicon Valley to pitch my company for venture capital. I was one of a handful of people in the reception area, and the only person of color. While I waited for my turn to present, another entrepreneur in search of funding approached me  and asked if I could get him a cup of coffee. Taken aback but determined to maintain my poise, I looked over my shoulder to signal to him that I assumed he was addressing someone else.   Then, I responded, “I don’t know where the coffee is, but when you find it, would you mind bringing me a cup? I take it black.” He stood before me stunned.  I laugh when I recount that story now but I know we all still have much work to do. At the time it wasn’t so funny. It was shocking but not surprising.  It was new and old.  It was tiring.

Society sometimes puts masks on us. Rather than seeing each individual as our authentic self, full of promise and possibilities — as we really are—people who are not used to finding excellence in people of color assume it is not there.  Sometimes even when they recognize our excellence, they don’t know how to relate to it because it is new to them or makes them feel uncomfortable.  My belief is that they lack proximity to difference and, consequently, cannot engage with it or embrace it.  Proximity leads to understanding and understanding is the pathway to empathy and inclusion. If you’re a woman, there’s a mask that you don’t have leadership skills. If you’re a person of color, your mask might be that you lack capability or expertise. Masks can mask greatness. Masks can thwart growth and creativity.  Masks separate us and alienate us.  Masks transform only-ness into loneliness. 

In a talk Dr. Goins gave entitled “A Dream Deferred: 50 Years of Blacks in Mathematics,” he spoke beautifully of the Kwanzaa principle called Kujichagulia––self-determination to define and name ourselves, rather than be defined and named by others. He told his audience that this powerful idea is essential in promoting the mathematical development of all underrepresented minorities.

His achievements in the face of real and challenging only-ness are remarkable and exceptional. Equally inspiring are his summer research programs for underrepresented students in middle school, high school, and college as well as his advocacy service for Black and Hispanic mathematicians.

Dr. Goins said in an AMA blog post, “Now, I still love to do mathematics research, but I’m much more than someone who just does research in isolation all day. I enjoy working with graduate students and undergraduate students alike. I like to mentor younger faculty on finding a path to meet their career goals.” He is a researcher, a true teacher, and a courageous giving spirit. How rare is all that?

Sometimes we can be uplifted knowing the sacrifices we make are going to ease the pathways for future generations. As an icebreaker you often get bruises from the blows. But there’s some solace in knowing that the future generations will thrive because of what you endured as an icebreaker, like Dr. Goins.

I have a message for trailblazing people of color:  Only-ness leads to loneliness when there’s an absence of community. When you feel like you’re the only one and you don’t get respect or feel a sense of belonging, remember that there are others who came before you to smooth a rocky pathway for you; there are others coming behind you at a hastening pace as they emulate you; and there are others right beside you, even if you don’t sense their presence, cheering you on, extending a hand in support and reminding you your efforts are not in vain. We can’t be our best selves without community, without fellowship with others who share our values and aspirations for ourselves and for this world. Social media gives us connection to people in all corners of the world. Black Twitter can connect you to all kinds of new folks who may share similar experiences. So, call on your pioneering spirit and create your own community for support and inspiration. They’re out there and they’re waiting for you. You deserve to be fed in the ways that you need.

A note to those feeling only-ness: People are interested in your story like the story of Dr. Goins. They are moved by it. And there are many that will be helped by it. Somebody earlier in their career might now reach out to you for guidance. This becomes the beginning of a different kind of community, an intergenerational and global one.

At DreamBox, we’re trying to cultivate more people like Dr. Goins. Millions of aspiring young minds yearn to see more examples of people who look like them and whose personal stories demonstrate that they can achieve what you have achieved.

Dr. Goins, you have so much wisdom and experience to share. I sense even more great things ahead for you because so many more people know about your story now. You are strong and brave. You have found a new college environment to explore mathematics and teach talented, motivated and promising students. I join those who congratulate you on the triumph and success in your work and in your remarkable life. Thank you.

Photo credit: The New York Times