Aligned Blog: The Intersection of Art and Science: Honoring Black History Month

By Chabelis Byamana, Program Specialist, Office of Equity and Inclusion

Black History Month pays tribute “to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society,” and this year’s theme is “Art as a Platform for Social Justice.”

I recently saw American Fiction, a fantastic movie and directorial debut by Cord Jefferson. It follows the story of Monk, a writer frustrated with the establishment propping up Black stories founded on harmful tropes like portraying Black families as fractured, Black women as angry, and Black men as inherently violent. To make a point, he writes his own trope-filled novel which, to his dismay, is a success. The movie is witty, smart and a successful satirical commentary on race and the commodification of Black pain. The film couldn’t better represent this year’s Black History Month, it forces audiences to interrogate the role they play in this cycle of commodification and what that communicates to the industry about success. In thinking about this year’s Black History Month theme, I’ve found myself exploring the similarities between art and science. 

A paper published in EMBO Reports on the relationship between art and science so aptly stated what I see as an overarching truth: “at their core, art and science are both about observation and interpretation.” A video featuring researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center also explores this topic, honing in on the intersections of these two fields, particularly the creativity they require. I’ve now found myself thinking: if science, like art, is about observation, interpretation and creativity, what does today’s science say about how we see the world, who we center and who we leave out?

We cannot ignore disparities when it comes to science and research. We know that Black and African American people have “higher death rates than all other racial/ethnic groups for many” cancers (National Cancer Institute). In STEM careers, Black folks continue to be underrepresented: a 2023 report from the National Science Foundation found that despite forming 12% of the U.S. population in 2021, Black people only made up 9% of the STEM workforce (National Science Foundation). Even further, a report published in Cancer Discovery by Black in Cancer, an organization founded to create a network and community for Black folks in cancer, found that of that 9%, only 3% are medical oncologists. Black people are also underrepresented in clinical trials. But we know that Black folks are instrumental in pushing science and technology forward, people like Gladys West, who was instrumental in developing the GPS and George Washington Carver, who innovated farming and soil restoration. With such low levels of representation in STEM, imagine the innovators, creative thinkers and groundbreakers whose valuable contributions we are missing.

Art requires creativity, determination and imagination, skills that we must harness to make our science and research equitable and inclusive. Reaching underrepresented and historically marginalized communities like the Black community means more than just increasing numbers. We must reckon with historical trauma, consider social determinants of health, and acknowledge big, at times abstract, problems. So, with this year’s theme in mind, I encourage you to take time to learn about the contributions of Black folks to art and science. To engage with their creativity, and to take some time to reflect on where you might expand yours or find a new approach; you never know what looking outside of the box might inspire within you.

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Aligned is a blog written by the Center for Cancer Research's Office of Equity and Inclusion discussing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility and highlighting various ways we can all be more involved in creating a more diverse scientific workforce.

Posted on Tue, 02/06/2024