Picturing Black History

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Transcript: Twenty-Two Divided by Seven at the Tuskegee Institute, an Interview with Kwabena Slaughter

Kwabena Slaughter

I was recently researching some images from Tuskegee, and I saw a photograph of a geometry class and the teacher was guiding the students through an equation to figure out the circumference of a circle, and this photograph was from like around 1906. So on the chalkboard, you can see it in the photograph, it says the diameter of the circle is 42 inches, and then you see next to it, the teacher has written out the steps in the mathematical equation to get to the circumference, but … they’re not using pi, you know, they’re not using that graphic Greek symbol for pi, instead, they’re using the fraction 22 divided by 7. And when I was looking at this photo, I could tell that they were trying to find the circumference of a circle. So I’m looking on the chalkboard there. I’m like, well, where’s pi? I don’t see pi here. So how is this thing they’re doing going to answer the equation? It just struck me like, wait, 7 goes into 22 three times plus a little bit more. I was like, wait, is that 3.14? So I bust out my calculator and did the math there, and I was like, whoa, wait a minute. Here in 1906, in rural Alabama, they’re using 22 divided by 7 to serve the place of pi. That, to me, just opened up a whole realm of mathematical awareness and knowledge and pedagogy that I never got when I was in school. I had never seen that 22 divided by 7 format before, and I just thought that was really interesting. And it’s things like that, that I feel like are part of the importance of studying history, you know, like, up close. It’s not just about reading the history books, it’s about actually looking at what was going on there and seeing, you know, kind of what life was like on the ground. I just found that example to be really sort of reshaping expectations and notions about, you know, what life was like going on during that time, what people knew at that time and what they didn’t. I just find it really fascinating. And I just think that’s a solid example of the value of digging into the crates.