A BLACK MATHEMATICIAN TALKS ABOUT RACE
Sponsored by Walker Automated Services. Followed with a 45-minute performance by the Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago. June 16, 2001 at the Fairmont Hotel, 200 N. Columbus Dr. (Moulin Rouge Room)
by PHILIP EMEAGWALI
As Prepared For Delivery
Thanks. Thank you very much for the very pleasant introduction.
As indicated in your program, the Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago will be performing. I am normally introduced either as a mathematician or a computer scientist. But one surprising and little known fact about me is that I am also a dancer.
Three years ago, I studied African dance with the Sankofa Dance Theater of Baltimore. The reason I became interested in African dance is that I found the drumming and music to be both therapeutic and invigorating. Many mathematicians, myself included, believe that music inspires their creativity and helps them solve mathematical problems.
Similarly, mathematics can help you become a better musician. In fact, many musicians believe that music and mathematics have a lot in common. In an interview, Bob Dylan said that his "songs are all mathematical songs."
Someone once described dancers as poets in motion. I believe that the Muntu dancers are mathematicians in motion.
My dance instructor always close each lesson by explaining the cultural and historical significance of each dance. He explained to me that Sankofa is the name of a fabled African bird whose head is always turned backwards. The origin of the word is from the Akan language of Ghana, west African. "Sankofa" means "Go back and retrieve."
In a symbolic sense, the Sankofa bird is "facing the past." It symbolizes the African adage "Always remember the past for therein lies the future..."
In the spirit of Sankofa, I will like to begin by reflecting on the past to understand when, where and how the intellectual foundation for the Digital Age was laid. To understand where we are or where we are going or what directions we should take require that we review where we have been.
AFRICAN ORIGIN OF MATHEMATICS
I will begin by telling you a short story. Twenty years ago, I met a famous white mathematician who told me that Africans did not make any signicant contributions to mathematical knowledge. When I told him that I disagreed with him, he challenged me to name some Africans who made important contributions to mathematics.
"Sure," I said. "But I want you to first name some Europeans who made contributions to mathematics."
"Fibonacci is the greatest mathematician of the Middle Ages," he quickly replied.
"Is Fibonacci European or African?" I asked him.
"Fibonacci is European," he answered.
"No." I corrected him. "Fibonacci was born, raised and educated in Africa. When he emigrated to Pisa (Italy) , he became famous for being the first to solve a set of difficult mathematical challenges compiled by Emperor Frederick II. Fibonacci is most known for book, Liber Abaci (Latin for "The Book of the Abacus"). The Book of the Abacus was a hefty 15-chapter 459-page tome. During the Middle Ages, Book of the Abacus was the most widely used mathematics textbook in Europe.
Also, Fibonacci died 800 years ago. We do not have a true portrait of any person from that era. Therefore, we do not know if Fibonnaci is an African or European."
In his book "Liber Abaci," Fibonacci wrote that he was taught by African mathematicians. Therefore, his African teachers had to be as good as their student Fibonacci. In a symbolic sense, Fibonacci is African.
In fact, Fibonacci acknowledged that he stood on the shoulders of African mathematicians In his classic book Liber Abaci, Fibonacci wrote:
"All that was studied in Egypt, in Syria, in Greece, I investigated very carefully. I wanted to write a book of 15-chapters with nothing capital left out and this I did so that the science might be easily understood and the Latin people should no longer be deprived of it."
The mathematician was surprised by my answer. Again, I asked him to name another famous white mathematician.
"Euclid," he replied.
"Euclid," he explained, "is the most influential mathematician of all times. Euclid's book, 'The Elements,' is the second most reprinted book in history. It is second only to the Bible."
"Is Euclid European or African?" I asked the white mathematician.
"Euclid is European," he answered.
"How do you know Euclid is European?" I asked him.
"I saw his photo," was his answer.
"The photo of Euclid you saw is fictitious," I corrected him. "Euclid died 2,300 years ago, in Africa. We do not have any true photograph of any person that lived before Jesus Christ."
As far as we know, Euclid never travelled outside Africa. Therefore, we should assume that he is an African.
Again, he was shocked by my answer. Then I finally asked him to name a few more famous white mathematicians who lived before Euclid.
"The authors of the Moscow, Berlin and Rhind papyri," he answered. These papyri are the oldest mathematics textbooks in existence.
"Are the authors of those three papyri European or African?" I queried.
"There are all Europeans," was his response.
Again, I told him that he was wrong. The Moscow papyrus was excavated in Africa. It was renamed after the city of Moscow.
The Berlin papyrus was excavated in Africa. It was renamed after the city of Berlin.
The Rhind papyrus was excavated in Africa. It was written by an African named "Ahmes" but it was renamed the "Rhind Papyrus."
Ladies and gentlemen, the scientific tradition is to name a book, a discovery or an invention after the author, discover or inventor.
Why then was the "Ahmes" papyrus renamed after Alexander Rhind, a Scottish traveler that purchased it in Africa?
Why then was the oldest mathematical work written by an African mathematician renamed after a European traveler who is not even a mathematician?
Why then was the most important mathematical document excavated in Africa renamed after the European cities of Berlin and Moscow?
The French emperor, Napoleon, might have the answer to this question. "What is history?," Napoleon asked.
"History is nothing but a lie agreed upon!," he answered his own question.
One such lie agreed upon by historians of European ancestry is that Africans are intellectually inferior to Europeans. Therefore, Euclid, the world's greatest mathematician, must be European.
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was one of the most learned man of his time. Jefferson argued that it will be impossible for an African to understand the work of Euclid. In his book "Notes on the State of Virginia" that was published in 1781, Jefferson wrote:
Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid: and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous.Thomas Jefferson's view was widely held by prior and later United States presidents. For example, Abraham Lincoln, who allegedly freed the slaves wrote:
I agree with Judge Douglas that he (Negroes) is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color, and perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.Again, we do not have a true photograph or portrait of Fibonacci, Euclid and other great mathematicians that were born, raised and educated in Africa. I agree with the respected historian, George Sarton, who wrote:
I do not believe there is a single ancient scientist of whose lineaments we have any definite knowledge; thus to publish "portraits" of Hippocrates, Aristotle or Euclid is, until further notice, stupid and wicked.
Then and now, most people who were born in Africa were considered to be negroes. I believe that Fibonacci, Euclid and Ahmes were African by birth and heritage. The significance of the later statement is that Africans laid the foundation to what we now call modern mathematics and computer science.
Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest physicist of all time, acknowledged the contributions from Africa.
Every mathematician knows that mathematics cannot develop in a vacuum: a new theorem is based on know theorems, lemmas and axioms. Ahmes wrote that the mathematical knowledge contained in his Papyrus has been known for 200 before his era.
THE DIGITAL AGE
I was asked to speak about "Prospering in the Digital Age." The reason I digressed is that without digital computers, we will not have entered the Digital Age.
The abacus is the oldest computing equipment and the forerunner of all digital computers. Again, the first computing textbook was published in Africa. It was a description of computing techniques developed in Africa by Africans. It was called "Liber Abaci," which is Latin for "The Book of Abacus."
I wanted to, first, return to mathematics and computing techniques developed in Africa by Africans so that we can understand and appreciate how Africans laid the intellectual foundation to what we now call the Digital Age.
I am doing this, not to prove that Africans contributed more than Europeans, or vice versa. I just wanted us re-capture some of what was excluded in your history book.
During the era of Fibonacci, Euclid and Ahmes, Africa led the world in technology. If Africa once led the world, it can lead the world in the future again.
There are 30 billion embedded digital processors worldwide. Therefore, to state that the Digital Age has arrived will be repeating the obvious.
Our letters are digital. Our conversations are digital. Our books are becoming digital.
The human beings of the future will be digital. We will be replaced by robots, androids and cyborgs. I will explain how we will become digital in the later part of my talk.
Digital is now a metaphor for most things. Information is now reduced to bits. The word bit is an acronym for binary digits. That is, either "zero" or "one."
Your e-book will be reduced to "zero" or "one." Your telephone conversation will be reduced to "zero" or "one." Your television shows will be reduced to "zero" or "one."
Metaphorically speaking, all things digital are either "on" or "off." We the people of African descent will be either "on" to the Digital Age or "off" to the dark Industrial Age. Those nations that are "on" will become more affluent and those that are "off" will remain poor.
The gap between people and nations that have or lack access to computers and Internet is called the "digital divide." I prefer the term "knowledge divide." Computers and Internet are merely tools and a means to the end. Knowledge and Information is the end. The goal is to bridge the "knowledge divide" between people of African and European descent.
We do not want to create a "knowledge apartheid" in which children from underdeveloped nations will be eating the crumbs from the dinner table of the digital age.
The Information Age is an era in which intellectual capital is more important than financial and natural resources. Intellectual capital is the engine that drives economic growth. Knowledge is more important than food.
There is an old saying: "Give someone a fish to eat today and you must give him a fish tomorrow. Teach someone to fish, and he can always have food."
Poverty cannot be reduced by giving fish to the poor. It can be reduced by teaching the poor how to fish. It can be reduced by bridging the "knowledge divide."
THE PARADOX OF AFRICA
The knowledge divide has create unusual paradoxes in Africa.
The Catholic Church discourages the use of birth control in Africa, without explaining to us how the average African family can feed seven children on ten dollars a month income.
South Africa spends 10 percent of her budget on to built an army to defend her from her weaker neighbors, but spends 1 percent to defend her from HIV virus will eventually kill one in four adults.
Nigeria has learned how to exploit her natural resources, but not how to develop her human resources.
RACISM IN HIGH-TECH
One of my frequently most asked question is: "Is it more difficult for Africans and African-Americans to become dot.com millionaire?"
My answer is yes. Roy Walker, who owns an IT company will also give you his opinion later.
I believe that the obstacles we encounter in the field of education is also encountered in the field of business.
First, a person of African descent who wants to succeed in this field will improve her chances by moving to Silicon Valley. That is where most venture capitalists live and operate from.
Second, she may need to raise about $20 million dollars from white venture capitalists and hire 100 talented people.
The fact is that white venture capitalists are not comfortable funding a project headed by a black person.
I know of cases where a black entrepreneur is the brain behind a company but he was forced to step aside and allow a less qualified white male to head the company. There are thousands of dot.com companies in Silicon Valley but I can count the number headed by women or African-Americans on my fingers.
Finally, a successful African-American in high-tech will be pressured to quit as it she becomes more successful.
I will give one example. Do you know that Network Solutions, the company that assigns US domain names was originally owned by an African-American. As soon as the Internet took off, he was forced to sell Network Solutions for about $4 million dollars. Last, year he told Emerge magazine that the company that he sold for $4 million now worths more than a billion dollars!
The lesson: The United States courts and congress will not allow a black business person to have the monopolistic control that Bill Gates now have.
WHERE WE ARE GOING
As I said earlier, The Muntu Dance Theater will soon be performing. I was born and raised within the Igbo-speaking tribe in Africa. The Igbo belongs to the Bantu family of languages. "Muntu" is a Bantu word meaning "the essence of humanity."
What is the kernel, lifeblood, or essential about the human species? Is it essential that humans consists of flesh and blood? Can we exists as pure thought?
As I said, earlier, I am introduced as a computer or Internet pioneer but never as a dancer. But even my work on the Internet has been misinterpreted. What is left out is the spiritual dimensions of my work.
TO BE CONTINUED
The remaining portions of the speech will be posted later by the Webmistress.