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Blogging about race, America and astronomy

I realize that my blogging frequency has been way down over the Summer. This is due to many factors, including spending more time with my family, having an incredibly productive research team, and because I've been spending a lot of time reading. Over the past year, I have read more than a book per month on the topic of race, racism and Black history. Why this sudden interest? you might ask. Well, my interest, while intensified lately, has always been thoroughly piqued. One cannot grow up in America as a person of color, and particularly as a Black person with our 400 year history of oppression, struggle, and courage, and not notice a few things.

But more recently as a professor, I have found myself in a position to make a difference. Since my very first NSF grant proposal, I have always advanced a Broader Impact statement geared toward the advancement of people of color in astronomy. I have always recognized the value of diversity in advancing science and the paucity of color in the annals of astronomy is obvious to anyone with a conscious and a knack for critical thinking. 

So I decided that I should embark on a fuller journey to understand the intersection of race and science, but first I needed a well-posed question. My question was rather simple: Why has there been no growth in the number of Black astronomers over the past 30 years? Or in simpler terms: Where are all the Black folk in astronomy?

Answering this straight-forward question required me to embark on a journey of learning. Just as I did last year when I became interested in asteroseismology, but lacked a formal education in the subject since it wasn't covered in my grad-level Stars class, my race-centered question required me to do some serious research. Every time over the past two years that I have sat down to write on the subject of race in astronomy, I have found myself staring at a blank page. I felt things emotionally, I had anecdotes to tell. But I lacked a framework of understanding race. Hell, I didn't even understand what "race" and "racism" really are, at least from an academic perspective, even if I understood them at gut-level as a Black man living in America.

My inspiration has come primarily from the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates (pronounced tah-nuh-hah-see coats), a blogger, writer, thinker and ninja-level arguer over at The Atlantic. Reading his posts, I always felt like a child listening in while the grown-ups discussed Matters of Importance. His writing style is informed from his experience on the streets as much as from his Howard University education, and as such it is in your face, raw and tough to swallow, especially for the ignorant, of which I was a long-time club member. But in one of his posts he gave his reading list, and it occurred to me: You know what? I'm smart, I'm an academic, and I have a Growth Mindset. If I want to learn and grow, then I need to invest the time and effort. As it is in science, so is it in history, psychology, sociology and African American Studies.

So in I dove and my life and worldview have been forever changed. So be forewarned: I will be blogging once again. And as before, I will continue seeking a better way of doing business in astronomy. But the past year has resulted in profound change in how I see the world around me, and I won't always slow down to bring readers up to speed. If you are confused, disoriented, baffled or offended, then I have a challenge to issue: pick up a book or 10 and get caught up! But if you feel a burning need to ask a question, ask away, but please do so with respect and more than a Tweets worth of words. Write paragraphs and only advance defensible arguments. You are not entitled to your opinions. You are only entitled to those that you can defend.

If you do join the conversation, I promise there is a huge reward in it for you, particularly if you have ideal beliefs such as the notion of a scientific meritocracy, as well as justice, fairness and equal opportunity in general. Most astronomers fancy themselves liberals or even progressives. If you are in this group, then know your identity will be challenged as I write and if you read. But know that an informed life is always better than a blissful life of ignorance.

I invite you to join me on this journey of exploration, learning and progress!


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