by Sylvia L. Blalock
What do three poet laureates, a physicist, a math artist, a baker and an entrepreneur have in common?
Pi Day both is and isn’t about “pie.” Celebrated on March 14 – 3.14 – it was first marked as a day of note and importance in 1988 thanks to the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s scientific funhouse of hands-on exhibits made accessible by their team of scientists and teenage “explainers.”
Their 2021 festivities were primarily virtual and graced by John Sims, a math artist, activist and revolutionary thinker. What he brought to an otherwise primarily academic presentation was a Pi anthem that is as catchy as it is didactic, a singer wearing a Pi dress while singing the numbers of Pi with a jazz ensemble and so much more.
For 2022, as the Exploratorium returned to Pi Day in person, John Sims was invited as artist-in-residence for the month of March. He not only brought the subject of inclusivity and the lack of STEM outreach for the Black community; he embodied the ongoing fight against white supremacy and was published in the Tampa Bay Times, just days before Pi Day, in an op-ed piece that spoke to the incalculable value of inclusion.
Utilizing both the world-renowned space and prestige of the museum and the little-known community space Medicine for Nightmares Bookstore and Gallery on 24th Street in San Francisco’s historic Mission District, John brought the truth of his message by providing African American representation in every aspect of his residency. Science has just been invited to the cookout – and when Jaynelle St. Jean, owner of Pietisserie in Oakland, Calif., says she’s bringing the pie, you already know.
Black Pi and AfroDixie installation at Medicine for Nightmares in San Francisco
For the first time the recolored, reclaimed red, black and green Confederate flag hung directly across from his beloved African American Pi quilt in the same exhibit at Medicine for Nightmares. The moment was heavy with meaning in the modest, white-painted community space. It brought to mind the interior of old Black churches; but instead of pews, there were a few folding chairs and rows of bookshelves.
Question: What is the circumference of a pie that is 400 years across?
A photograph of John Sims’ “African American Pi” quilt was used as the book cover for an anthology of poetry named for the slain prime minister of Congo, “Patrice Lumumba: An Anthology of Writers on Black Liberation,” published by Nomadic Press and curated by Tureeda Mikell, was celebrated March 8, and in this same space he had a viewing party of his film “Artis Mathematicae” as the afterparty of Pi Day.
It truly was a glowing reminder that the days of science being a white, male domain were slipping away . . .
What was primarily literary space was infused with the deliciously abstract film that spoke in both mathematical and poetic terms while showcasing 3D animation, voiceover and great track dubbing. In both the Exploratorium and Medicine for Nightmares, John spoke of getting this enthusiasm for math and science into the hands of more children of color and called on us all to make commitments to see this happen.
He was not heavy-handed, but he also did not sugar-coat his intent. John’s previous Bay Area project was a bold reimagining of the song “Dixie” into several different music genres – jazz, blues, funk, R&B, reggae. He went further and invited artists from around the country to write poems to various versions of the song, creating the Afro Dixie Remix project. Having been invited to write a song to the R&B version, I penned “They Don’t Call Us Dixie Anymore,” where we delivered to a packed house at San Francisco’s fabled City Lights Bookstore.
No stranger to the conflict, John Sims brought to Pi a combined irreverence and intimate knowledge – and the understanding of how white supremacy worked to deny access to such advanced teachings and subject matter. The 6’5” natty dred scholar came for the math and stayed for the uprising. His Pi-inspired quilts bore complete explanations as to their original and meaning, giving a nod to the Amish quilters from Sarasota, Fla., with whom he worked to have his collection of 13 quilts made.
Seeing Pi and Civil Pi Movement by John Sims at the Exploratorium, 2022
Using the full reach of his residency, which began March 3, John invited local poets to write on the topic of Pi and mathematics from their own diaspora. An organic, didactic journey began as John hosted “Poetry, Pi and Pie” on March 13, the day before the official Pi Day festivities.
True to his calling, John spoke of Pi from a place of emotion and understanding in his “Dear Pi Letter” and was joined by Poet Laureate of Oakland Ayodele Nzinga, author of “SorrowLand Oracle,” and Poet Laureate of San Francisco Tongo Eisen-Martin, author of “Heaven Is All Goodbyes,” in preparing and opening a space that was inclusive and inviting to witness. Also on hand was Jaynelle St. Jean, who brought samples of her delicious pies that easily are the best ever.
Flavors such as grapefruit, award winning raspberry chocolate and the BBW – Black-bottomed walnut Pi – were beautiful, representative – the pies had the symbol for Pi, 𝝅, on them – and delicious. Dr. Desiré Whitmore, a physicist on staff at the Exploratorium reflected on her own first Pi day – a big deal among physicists – and how she not only baked a savory pie, she baked a square pie, spanakopita, for her peers.
Dr. Whitmore spoke of representation and truly acted as a welcome committee for the poetry world to come in and paint their space in the abstract. That she chose a Greek-styled pie in honor of Pi being the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet and because Pi doesn’t represent “round” as much as it does “around vs. through,” Dr. Whitmore and John Sims represented a level of connection to the idea of Pi that exceeded what they learned about it – they “overstood” the assignment.
John Sims’ “31415 …” Pi anthem is improbably catchy. With a beat that held it together, the anthem brought everyone to front.
Much tribute would be paid to Albert Einstein – whose birthday just happens to be Pi Day – and to the late physicist, former Exploratorium staff and Pi Day’s founding organizer, Larry Shaw. The Exploratorium also honored women in physics and their own interactions with Pi.
It truly was a glowing reminder that the days of science being a white, male domain were slipping away, though not completely gone. Kim Shuck, Cherokee Nation member, Poet Laureate Emeritus of San Francisco 2017- 2021 and author of “Exile Heart,” opened the official event with a poem in which visitors and staff alike were drawn in by words that invoked the academic and slid into a dance of periphery, kinetic energy using expressions of curvature and fluid meaning.
3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510 – We spoke in terms of nature, of love, of water and wind while still giving the other a soft backdrop of the never-ending digits.
The interspersing of accurately used mathematical terminology that gave a new context to both the meaning of Pi and the different meanings of Pi curled around the monuments of academic exclusion. With his “Dear Pi Letter,” John Sims’ rich baritone voice spoke in almost loving tones to an irrational, transcendental number.
The backdrop and lush delivery were both powerful and incredibly rich in mathematical reference and teaching. While the recorded track of the Pi anthem, which would be played at the beginning and end of the event as well as during the Pi parade, is an earworm, the live performance of the song by the Science Band was at once Avant Garde and a seeming crash of converging voices and profoundly dope basslines.
By writing Pi in Base 7 and then playing the resulting digits as musical notes, John was able to compose something amazing. While John Sims is not the first to attempt to connect music and Pi, he is the first to make it funky!
Pies by Pietisserie for Pi Day 2022 at the Exploratorium
Meanwhile, Pietisserie was on hand with samples of their delicious Pi pies as well as a display of different sized Pi Pies which allowed learners to calculate the circumference when given the pie pan measurements. One notable pie was a whooping 3 feet across – a cherry pie that had to be baked in a pizza oven, and it was delicious!
There were also 3-inch pies and pies that had the symbol of Pi and the digits of Pi on them. Because of the clear importance surrounding Pi Day for the Exploratorium, it was a wonderful welcome into the kinetic energy of the 53-year-old museum, which relocated from the Palace of Fine Arts to its new location at Pier 15 in April 2013.
To hold this space while also being the change that had arrived was surreal. It was John Sims’ letter to Pi accompanied by a slow pan shot of his Civil Pi quilt starting with just one zoomed in square that pulled the day together for me.
The Exploratorium means many things to many people. For myself, as a sophomore at J. Eugene McAteer High School, class of ‘84, the Exploratorium, then located at the Palace of Fine Arts, was my first tax paying job. It was also the place that I made my peace with algebra, thanks to hands-on help in understanding its “language,” the first time I learned about “base 10” and the ways in which the meanings of numbers could change based on the rules.
I was better able to understand the ways in which letters could represent numbers and so forth. To return to the Exploratorium in this new-to-me location as a guest for Pi Day, to be part of speaking to the displacement of Black people from the city and the irregular representation of math, science, music and art to children of color in ways that would engage, or leveraging one (STEM) against the other (arts) – it was heavy.
. . . the ratio of Pi is expressed as “we.”
My collaboration with Kim Shuck involved alternately reading the digits of Pi as the other reads our collaborative poem, 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510. Kim and I wove a basket of words that captured the old vestiges of exclusion. We spoke in terms of nature, of love, of water and wind while still giving the other a soft backdrop of the never-ending digits.
I evoked Dr. Desiré Whitmore, Ph.D., and her story of the “square Pi” in my own poem, bringing us full circle from the day before. When I thought of the idea of Pi, which is the ratio between the circumference of a circle and the diameter, I thought of the circle as the world and the idea of going around it vs. going through it.
I thought of the world as we have lived through, and how we had no choice but to come the long way round, because there was no way through it. But if we apply what we know of Pi, we know that the way around is at least 3.1415-ish times longer than the way through and there is a lot in those 3.1415-ish times.
That said, then, the ratio of Pi is expressed as “we.” When we closed Pi Day 2022 at the Exploratorium with a parade, it was the poets who put something on the minds of the scientists!
In the Pi, John Sims, 2022
John Sims closed his event with an intimate afterparty at Medicine for Nightmares. JK Fowler, founder of Nomadic Press, played host to Sims and a small gathering of poets and interested parties who noshed on more of delicious pie from Pietisserie while sipping wine, admiring John’s work and “discussing amongst themselves.”
John made the connection between the access to the information and the freedom to explore and experiment with it without having it used to exclude, shame or degrade learners. He quantified that we are all learners and, once made to feel shame for what we do not know, we tend not to try again.
In the time of Covid-19, it will take creative ways to bridge the gap caused by stay-at-home orders, gaps in courses and overall chaos. What John Sims has done in the Bay Area for Pi Day and the presentations, watch parties and residencies across the country, might be that really big foot in the door that we’ve been waiting for.
Sylvia L. Blalock is the chief executive poet at Queendom Network LLC and author of “Uprising: A Book of Poetry.” She is the host of upcoming project Voices That Carry – Being Loud On Purpose, www.voicesthatcarry.org.