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CSULB professor at helm of national movement to get Black kids excited about math

Published February 17, 2021

Rows of math problems were supposed to serve as punishment for a misbehaving 8-year-old boy. Multiplication tables, converting fractions and long division. 

Yet for Kagba Suaray, those math problems did not scare him. In fact, he wanted more. 

“Doing those problems didn’t turn me off and that’s when I knew I loved math. Instead of turning me off, it was one of those ‘a-ha’ moments. "I knew I was OK with this,” said Suaray, who has turned that passion into a career. As a professor of mathematics, he helps students at Cal State Long Beach understand polynomials and algebraic equations. 

kagba suaraySuaray is now turning his attention to young Black students, hoping he and his university colleagues can expose them to formulas and equations. To reach them, Suaray founded the Hesabu Circle, a virtual program designed to help Black students of all ages from around the world connect with Black math professionals and educators.

Hesabu is the Kiswahili word for mathematics. 

“Unlike other areas of exploration, students often times are discouraged from mathematics, not because of any innate ability they have or don’t have, but because they get discouraged by teachers,” Suaray said. “(There are those) who say there are ‘math people’ and ‘you’re not a math person.’ That’s game over for me.” 

One way to encourage more Black students to invest in mathematics is to present the subject in a different light, outside of textbooks and calculators, he said. In a recent virtual event, Suaray and colleagues demonstrated how counting is fundamental in hip-hop and disc jockeying, using drum patterns, counting beats and even rhyming words. Suaray said the techniques they use (videos, games) help students and parents see math as part of their everyday life, demystifying the subject, thus empowering them to believe they can conquer math.

“I think there’s a lot of power in that,” he said of easing the fear of learning. “There’s a lot of individual students who have mathematical abilities, but for some reason, they have received and internalized the message that they are not mathematical.” 

Suaray said his knack for solving complicated math problems was not only something innate but cultural as well. Ancient Africa is believed to be the birthplace of both basic and advanced mathematics. Historians have found that Africans were using numerals, algebra and geometry long before others in the world. 

“It is who we are,” he said. “Because of the system and struggle we have been engaged in, not only here but in Africa, that side of things have not been featured prominently. To be honest, when you think of Black folks, you don’t think of Black mathematicians. Whereas we are the originators of it. 

“The Hesabu Circle is a way to get back to that birthright of our ability of doers of mathematics.”

To underscore his point, Suaray will feature in his next event Feb. 27 Black scholars, who will discuss the African origins of mathematics and the accomplishments of Black people in the field. Among the Black mathematicians who have made significant contributions are Elbert Frank Cox, the first Black person to earn a Ph.D.; David Blackwell, who was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, NASA computer scientist Annie Easley and Katherine Johnson, a computation expert for NASA, who provided the orbital entry and launch calculations that enabled astronaut John Glenn to orbit the moon. 

Johnson was featured in the movie “Hidden Figures.” 

"We want to hear from students, because the need to know they are Black history in the making," Suaray said. "We always have an interactive portion in our events." 

As a teen, Suaray tutored neighborhood kids who were struggling with math, and later in the Student Learning Center during his first year at CSULB. Those experiences solidified his desire to expand interest in math among Black students. 

“For them to be able to go from having no idea of how to do a problem or understanding it and to having that a-ha moment really made me feel good,” Suaray said. “As a professor, I still see those a-ha moments and that excites me – when they get it and when they take ownership of it.”