Math Equity & Questlove’s Coat

This week Ahmir Thompson AKA Questlove posted several photos of the coat he wore when he won an Oscar for Best Documentary for “Summer of Soul”. The appearance was nearly overshadowed by something else (I won’t mention it) but what caught my attention was the details on the coat:

This coat worn by @questlove is a @geesbendquiltmakers collaboration with our dear friend @greglauren. The Gee Bend Quilters are a collective of African Woman Quilters from Alabama The quilts of Gee’s Bend are among the most important African-American visual and cultural contributions to the history of art within the United States. The quilting shown was done by the ladies who names were sewn inside. — Rebecca Pietri

Just a day earlier I created culturally relevant math materials that covered quilting and proportionality or the use of ratios, fractions, decimals, and percents. This effort is part of my ongoing research as well as part of a series of lessons involving quilt making and STEAM learning (example). But, first, let’s start at the beginning of this journey.

A Geometric Bridge Across the Middle Passage

Ron Eglash wrote a 2004 essay linking the work of late artist John Biggers and mathematics. A Geometric Bridge Across the Middle Passage, explores the artist’s combining of African and African American heritage, nature, and geometric forms. Eglash notes that much of Biggers’ early art is described in terms of symbolic relations but the artist evolved to emphasize the geometry in the symbols. In the essay he writes,

Quilting Party… (incorporated) a syncretic mixture of both African American vernacular designs as well as previously untapped African patterns… Textiles in Biggers’ murals morph from African American quilting patterns to African textiles…

Historian Alvia Wardlaw and artist Sanford Biggers linked John Biggers’ artwork to Gee’s Bend quilts. Scholars of African American traditional quilts, such as Maude Southwell Wahlman, Eli Leon, Judy Bales and others, have created a vocabulary to describe the aesthetic preferences of the quilters such as strip-construction, multiple patterning, flexible patterning, asymmetry, bold patterning, and improvisation. Judy Bales writes,

While one or more of these characteristics may dominate in a particular quilt, improvisation, or variation on a theme, is especially prevalent. Improvisation is widely acknowledged to be a core component and aesthetic impetus of African and African-American art forms.

Several educators worked on A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction toolkit that offers an integrated approach to mathematics that centers Black, Latinx, and Multilingual students in grades 6–8. I created my own toolkit (PDF) to accompany my book Techno-Vernacular Creativity & Innovation. All of this work informs my current math equity work.

The Questlove Coat: A Math Lesson

We can use Questlove’s unique coat to teach middle school mathematics and computer science. Middle school students work to develop flexible understanding of strategies for making comparisons, ways of comparing different amounts. Giving students concrete experiences with visual representations of ratio is essential. Making the conceptual jump to ratio needs good concrete models such as quilting.

Instead of colors, students can use different patterns or textures based on the overall black shade of Questlove’s Oscars coat. Here’s what I came up with:

The quilts of Gee’s Bend are considered to be one of the most unique and important African-American visual and cultural contributions to the history of art within the United States. The quilting tradition in Gee’s Bend goes back to the 19th century. Questlove carried on the tradition; quilt makers and fashion designers worked together for the historical moment at the Oscars.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.