Why Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Fuses Physics with Black Feminism

Black Feminist in Public is a new series of conversations between creative Black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.


This is part one in a two-part edition of Black Feminist in Public featuring Black feminist scientists. Click here to read Janell’s interview with University at Albany chemistry professor Rabi A. Musah.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s work brings her love for particle physics, cosmolog and dark matter together with her interests in feminist philosophies of science, technology and society studies. The University of New Hampshire physics and astronomy professor, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo in Canada, also engages in public scholarship—including through her online Decolonising Science Reading List and her forthcoming book, The Disordered Cosmos: From Dark Matter to Black Lives Matter.

Prescod-Weinstein opened up to me about black holes, dark matter and Black women in STEM—both past and present.  

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Photograph by Lisa Longstaff

How did you become interested in physics and astronomy?

I was always interested in math. In first grade, I learned my times tables and got really obsessed with them. I liked finding patterns in numbers, and I guess my mom noticed—so when I was 10, she decided to take me to see this documentary by Errol Morris called A Brief History of Time, which was a documentary about Stephen Hawking, who right around that time had published a book of the same name about physics.

About halfway through the movie, they were talking about how Einstein’s general relativity breaks down at the center of a black hole, at what’s called the singularity, and how Stephen Hawking was trying to figure out what the physics was. I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, you can get paid to worry about the things that Einstein didn’t figure out?” I hadn’t really thought about the fact that what Einstein did was a job.

I walked out of the movie theater thinking “that’s definitely what I’m doing,” and I begged my mom for a copy of the book. That was how I got started.

What are your thoughts on the recent photos of the black hole?

In the press it got reported as our first image of a black hole. But nothing can escape from inside its event horizon, including light. We literally can’t see it. What we’re really looking for are things that we can see that are close to the edge of the black hole.

I think what’s hard to communicate to the public was that the technological advance—and even being able to craft the image, and get the level of detail that we got so close to the edge of the black hole, was an extraordinary accomplishment and incredibly exciting.

What is it about black holes that excite you?

Black holes are definitely one of the weirdest things that happen in space time, because it’s just basically space time that is totally transformed. In fact, the properties of space—where you can move in any direction—and time—where we only go forward in our everyday lives—those properties completely flip with each other once something’s inside of a black hole. If you think about it like being on a moving walkway, you’re basically on a moving walkway where you can’t turn around and walk in the opposite direction. That’s why nothing can get out of a black hole. Space time is radically different from the way that humans experience it.

Do you address these issues in the book you’re working on? I like the title, The Disordered Cosmos: From Dark Matter to Black Lives Matter.

I wanted to write a book that gives a holistic picture of my science, such as the political and social components which have ramifications for the wider world and the communities that we are a part of. For instance, why is it that quantum chromodynamics is sometimes called colored physics? Would a Black scientist have used that language?

Interesting. Do you think a Black scientist would have used a term like “black hole”?

That’s a good question. That’s one I haven’t thought about before. I have a whole chapter about dark matter in the book; I object to the analogizing of Black people and dark matter. It’s premised on a misunderstanding of what dark matter is and the role it plays. Dark matter is an exotic, different type of matter—so that’s like saying Black people are a different, exotic type of matter, which is problematic. I understand why it’s been a seductive metaphor; it’s taken on a life of its own. 

I think Black scholars can see how this metaphor makes sense of the Black experience.

But how do Black scientists hear and see this language? I think that Black scientists are thought of as mythological Afrofuturist beings. And it may be that we’re Afrofuturists, but we’re not mythological.

Part of what’s salient about the Hidden Figures story was that this whole time we were being told that there were no Black women scientists, and yet they were there. And we didn’t know about them.

This is where physicist Evelynn Hammonds’ metaphorical use of “black holes,” or “Black (w)holes,” becomes salient to me in describing the invisibility of Black women. 

If you’re talking about disappearing people, I wouldn’t describe the Hidden Figures women in that way, because they were retrievable. The people who get disappeared into an archival black hole—Black women who lived through slavery and who may have been scientific thinkers—they exist in an archival black hole and are lost forever.

We don’t know about Benjamin Banneker’s contemporary. I think Harriet Tubman is the closest that we get to that. But Tubman’s work in astronomy was specifically applied astronomy; she was using it to navigate, whereas Benjamin Banneker was actually getting to be an intellectual who just sat and thought about things. We don’t really have a Black woman equivalent in physics and astronomy until you get into the twentieth century. The first Black Ph.D. in physics was Edward Bouchet. He got his Ph.D. in 1876 from Yale University. Yale College doesn’t even admit women until 1970. 

This is such an important conversation to have, but if you ask the right questions, you might be able to retrieve those women. That’s what Black feminist literary scholars did when retrieving the literature of Black women from the past. 

I do think there will be things that are forever lost, but I agree with you that looking for silences in the archives and drawing contours around that, and then looking for things that nobody thought to look for, is a major piece of the project of Black Women’s Studies—looking for things that people thought weren’t worth looking for.

The fact that, as a Black feminist scientist, you’re even asking or thinking that they were there is already disrupting the narrative. Within your own physics field, can you think of anyone who isn’t a Black woman even asking that question or imagining that those women existed? 

Exactly. It’s kind of an unsung hero aspect of what people in Black Women’s Studies do.

I actually commissioned this incredibly wonderful painter, Shanequa Gay, who is based in Atlanta and working on a painting for my office. She envisions Black women who happen to be slaves, but who are also scientists, specifically physicists. We are socialized into thinking of enslaved Black people as brainless automatons, as if they were just in the field mindlessly picking cotton, or in the big house being mindlessly raped or mindlessly cooking in the kitchen. The painting that Shanequa is doing for me, for my office, depicts Black women cooking the cosmos. They’re in the kitchen stirring a pot filled with galaxies and star clusters.

What an amazing vision! It really makes a difference when you have certain women and Black women specifically creating such a vision.

As a Black woman, I interpret things very differently from the white scientists around me. I’m just continuously bringing that mindset to everything that I come to in my work: How do I interpret this through the lens of the history of my community? 

Who are the prominent Black women in physics and astronomy?

Jedidah Isler is a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, also here in New Hampshire, and she’s both an incredible scientist and an incredible media maven. She has a monthly online talk show that focuses on the experiences of women of color in STEM. She started an organization called Vanguard STEM that focuses on providing resources and blogging and opportunities for women of color in STEM. She’s been a TED fellow and a National Geographic Explorer.

When I think of prominent Black women in physics, Jedidah immediately comes to mind. She was also the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Yale University. There are under 100 African American women who have earned doctorates either from a department of physics or department of astronomy, and Jedidah and I are counted among that group.   

Why are there so few?

That has to do with an undergraduate physics curriculum, where much of the gate-keeping happens—and then, as Evelynn Hammonds made clear in her work and in interviews, more gate-keeping happens at the graduate level in physics programs.

Every Black woman in physics that I’ve ever talked to had someone, at an early stage of their studies, say to them: “You’ll never make it as a physicist.” I’m sure that there are Black women that this didn’t happen to in physics, but I’ve had that conversation over and over again. It happened to me. 

We as Black women are “presumed incompetent” across a number of different academic fields, but I definitely see how this would be specific to physics.

What I’ve learned over the years in talking to Black women across disciplines, across professions—whether you’re working as a custodian or a professor in a physics department, whether you’re in the sociology department or you’re a lawyer or doctor—these questions of your competence and your humanity are always present. So that is something that physicists have not invented. But physicists sort of imagine that these questions that are very much gendered and racialized somehow don’t follow them into the physics community.

If you think of the intellectual hierarchies in the university, physicists are considered, along with mathematicians, to be the intellectual cream of the crop. They’re the smart ones, the geniuses, the Einsteins. That comes with the gate-keeping of the field. And Black women are policed even just for wearing a bonnet when they drop their kids off to school! If we can’t trust Black women to get dressed, how are we going to trust them to uncover the mysteries of the universe? 

What a loaded question! And one that I think necessarily skews the numbers of Black women going into the field. How do we change that kind of discouragement?

I just keep thinking of how different it would be if people weren’t discouraging. What would our sense of adventure be if we went into a Ph.D. program thinking, “I’m just going to try things because this is an exciting opportunity to experiment and learn about the world,” as opposed to thinking, “okay, I’m going to try and make it; people keep telling me I can’t do it, so now I have to prove that I can do it.” That’s a totally different mindset. 

What do we lose when Black women physicists encounter these obstacles?

There’s just an element of freedom that Black women are robbed of as we enter into the process. We need to ask ourselves and our communities: what does flourishing look like? Not just surviving, but thriving.

Thriving is not indulgence.

About

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.