Hidden Figure: A Meditation on Genius and the African Origin of Math

By Misty Sol

I timed traveled the other night. I fell asleep in my living room watching a movie and dreamt of central Africa. I opened my eyes to a spectacular sky on the banks of what is now Lake Edward, Ishango. There is a young woman in the distance. The stars dazzle the sky like diamonds laid on my wrist; they dance on the surface of the lake like diamonds in obsidian glass. The moon is rotund, white, fat, full and competes for my attention with its brilliance. The year is 30,000 bc.

I walk toward her. And when she looks up. Oh, when she looks up! A girl with skin the color of the night sky and eyes big and black enough to hold the stars.  Those eyes tell me everything.  She comes from people whom the stars taught the concept of infinity, systems, divine chaos, and order.  

Look up, Black girl. Luminous beauty! Wonder of the ancient world.  

Her mind expands, stretches, reaches, recognizes, cycles, patterns, and she counts. It is all a rhythm to her, a way of knowing herself and the world, the universe.  She is living math in her way of being and creating.  She knows her destiny is to be the architect of modern human thought.

She has been holding something up to the moonlight.

What have you made, genius girl?  From a bone? And a sparkling gem?

Now it is her turn to direct my eyes to the sky.

Look up.

She tells me

Look all around you. Then inside yourself.

What is your name? I ask her.

And she giggles mischievously.


Apple, or IBM,

NASA. She laughs, just Google me.

Then, her face changes.  It’s my face I see, then the face of the many black women who formed the mathematical heart of the American space program. Then, there isn’t a face at all, just an infinite series of zeros and ones; raw information, and beyond that the fractal patterns of living breathing reality, and beyond that sky.

Still laughing, the girl begins to dance. There is no sound. Still, I hear hip-hop music echoing the beats of planets and stars. She is in tune with the joyful mathematics of life. And not ironically she is kicking up million-year-old soil containing the coltan used in our time to power the revolution in wireless communication.

I wake up back in 2017 and the credits roll on my bootleg copy of Hidden Figures. I use the mouse to click play and watch the movie again from the beginning.  This time I don’t fall asleep.

The girl I saw in my dream is real.

What she held, the Ishango bone was found by archeologists in the mid-1900s, buried in 20,000-year-old layers of volcanic ash on the banks of Lake Edward in central Africa.  It is a four-inch fibula bone of a baboon, carved with organized notches with a quartz crystal point on one end probably used for writing and/or engraving. Across discipline, the artifact is considered to be conclusive evidence of advanced mathematical thought in Africa 30,000+ years ago.

The groupings of the notches on the bone have been analyzed by mathematicians and suggest the use of counting systems based on 9, 10 and 12 as well as knowledge of prime numbers.  The binary counting system suggested by the markings are a clear predecessor to the binary multiplication systems later used by Egyptians and Ethiopians.  Even the use of a baboon bone suggests a lineage to Thoth, the Egyptian God of learning, writing, and mathematics. Anthropologists believe the knowledge of numbers spread north along the Nile and these Ethiopian and Egyptian computing methods are the precursor for modern, mechanized, computer operations.  

It’s all very complicated and interdisciplinary, and the terminology, indeed, the ideologies, from sacred to secular have changed across millennia, however, texts like  Alexander Marshack’s The Roots of Civilization, lay out the chain of lineage very clearly.   

In his famous TED talk, mathematician Ron Eglash explains how divination systems all over ancient Africa utilized a type of deterministic chaos and binary counting that spread north through the Arabic world where the knowledge was sought and gained first by European kings through the Arabs and Moors, where it then became the knowledge of European geomancers and alchemists. Later, European mathematicians and scientists used this knowledge to develop fractal mathematics and computer science.

Indeed, mathematicians call central Africa the cradle of mathematics. The Ishango bone is the earliest mathematical instrument in the world. It is in a locked drawer on the 19th floor of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Belgium.

Leading Ethno Mathematician Claudia Zaslansky author of “Women as the First Mathematicians” believes the Ishango bone is a menstrual calendar, archaeologist Alexander Marshack agrees that it is a lunar calendar.  Is it possible that the origin of mathematical thought, the foundation of our modern digital civilization is not only Black but feminine? More than possible. From our cell phones to our computers, to our missions on Mars, yes, that’s a Black girl’s mind.

Look up, Black girl! Big headed beauty! Architect of civilization.

It seems to me, the Black girl I met in my dream, who may have been my ancestor, but is most certainly the archetype of Black girl magic, is still a hidden figure. Let us look closely at her.  Is she hard to believe? She shouldn’t be.

A book published in 2008, Big Brain-The Origin and Future of Human Intelligence written by two American neurologists, used century old information from anthropological finds to posit a theory of the evolution of human intelligence.  They speculate that unlike the media image of ancient man as a stuttering violent brute, modern humans are not necessarily more advanced or more intelligent than ancient peoples.. Reading we learn of Boskop man a hominid found in central and south Africa with larger heads and much greater intelligence than modern humans.  From their background in neurology, what scientists now know about brain cavity size and brain functionality, they speculate that the average Boskop would have had an average IQ of 150 or greater whereas a genius among them would have had an IQ in an unfathomable range.  Although no modern Boskop exist, their genes are assumed to be present in certain populations of the African gene pool.

I found many layman’s objections and negative reviews of the book online.  But none from neurologists or archeologists. Although challenging their theories aren’t any more far-reaching than the constant speculation about neanderthals in both popular media and scientific publication.  The difference is the setting, neanderthals who are agreed to have a brain capacity consistent with having a little more intelligence than modern homo sapiens have Europe as a backdrop, whereas the genius Boskop woman is assumed to be an African.  

The point is that racism has at its root a mythology of African inferiority. We are uncomfortable with African genius.  So much so, that for 500 years, the popular and scientific media have colluded to erase history in order to tell a story of the African as a dumb ape.  I cried watching Hidden Figures, I cried for myself and all the little Black girls who were told that not only were women not good at math, but that we, in particular, were hopeless because we are Black.

I cried for myself, at the end of the century, a little, big headed, Black girl, who read a book called The Bell Curve. it was published in September 1994 by two social scientists, Charles A. Murray and Richard Herrnstein, who theorized that black people can’t think. I was in 10th grade and at the top my class. The two proposed that Black people are closer to apes and that I, with an IQ much closer to Boskop than the average modern human, was an impossibility.  Using no real scientific basis and aware of direct evidence to the contrary, they said that Black people were genetically inferior and that regardless of environment, inspiration or wealth, best efforts or education, we could not be made to compete intellectually with white people and Asian people, would always be a burden to society and a criminal element. The book was a New York times bestseller for 15 weeks; white folks clung to the idea like a life raft. These ideas of black intellectual inferiority still permeate classrooms and school boards.  Still infest the minds of white and black educators and policy makers.  It is the basis for medical abuse and the building of new prisons.

Why wasn’t I told about the human calculators, the African traders, savants, who could recall and calculate huge strings of numbers for their European masters with no pencil or paper?

Why wasn’t I told about the Black women, the literal human computers, who formed the backbone of NASA’s launch into the modern space age? Why wasn’t I told about the Rind papyrus, the 4,000-year-old mathematical text found in Egypt?  Why wasn’t I told about African fractal thought and spirituality? Why wasn’t I taught about the Ishango bone?  The truth of Black genius is no secret to European scientists and artists.  Was my heritage deliberately hidden from me?

I watched Taraji P. Henson with her big head, black girl self on the silver screen and I cried during the scenes where she portrayed Katherine Johnson, doing brilliant calculations in front of all of those white folks.  I cried because America is uncomfortable with Black genius. This movie is in the genre of the supermind.  They make one every year about a white person so intelligent that the average person is in awe of their capabilities:  A Beautiful Mind, Powder, Lucy, Good Will Hunting, Limitless, the list goes on and on.  We are comfortable with white genius.  

Hidden Figures was a mixed genre movie; it isn’t just a supermind film, it’s also a Black film. The racist associations born out of our American context confuse our perception of the movie.  Are the white people in awe of Katherine Johnson because she was a genius or because she was a genius who is also Black and female?  It is difficult to assign genius, a very human quality, to a member of a group set outside of the borders of the human family, as Black Africans have been.  And so even in our genius, we are dehumanized, we are unacknowledged, we are of service to the agendas of our oppressors. In the movie it is explicit that the space program was in the interest of the survival of the American white male and the Black women who were essential to that mission couldn’t even go to the bathroom with dignity.  Ever good mammy, she held their metaphorical hands, was self-sacrificing and mathematically, intellectually, indispensable, up until the very last moment.

As a society, we acknowledge the African woman’s genetic contribution and the labor of her body.  We accept her as Eve and aunt Jemima simultaneously;  our first mother.  We must expand our definition of Black womanhood to include her as the mother of human thought and intelligence.  What happens, when as a society, we empower Black children to look up into space and use the mathematical genius that is our heritage in service of our own survival agendas?  What if we directed our genius toward thriving as a people?

There is a film on Amazon called Negroes in Space, released in 2016 that imagines what might happen when we use our genius in the service of self-determination.  There is a movie on Youtube called Cosmic Slop that shows what might happen if we don’t.  Either way, our intellectual ability to determine our future destiny should no longer be in question.  I look forward to a new genre of movie that not only acknowledges but normalizes Black intellect.


Misty Sol is a writer, story illustrator, and sometimes singer. She loves making meals from scratch, streams, daydreaming, tiny houses, big ideas, and Black history.

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