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Katherine Johnson: The Girl Who Loved to Count

I have always been ridiculously proud of being black. My parents filled me with the stories of those who fought for Caribbean independence like Julian Fedon, Queen Nanny and Toussaint L’Ouverture. For the few years my family lived in Canada, my dad owned a black book store and I loved nothing better than to sit in a corner reading a book and listening to grown folk talk about history and politics. I learned about the ongoing struggle in America and the rest of the black diaspora an to reverse centuries of racism and imperialism at a very early age.Spending my formative years in London and Toronto I got read and hear about so many heroes that bucked the restrictions of antebellum and Jim Crow America without the malignant dynamics that serve to minimize and disregard the acts of these heroes in this country.I was deeply impressed by the fighting spirit of black people of all walks of life.  By the time I was nine I was recite more facts about black accomplishments than a J. A. Rodgers book!

Since I was surrounded by this knowledge I never got the idea that math and science was for white men. I competed and won borough and city wide science fairs. I went to natural science camp and I am proud alumni of the Bronx High School of Science. It wasn’t until my tenure as a doctoral student I got the message that black excellence was not to be seen or heard. I was asked by several professors indirectly and directly to tone down my rhetoric when it came to issues of race because I was making white students uncomfortable. One vile little weasel of a professor actually told me I had to learn “how to talk to white people!” In my doctoral program the feelings of whites were more important than my education, a lesson that was a far more bitter pill to swallow than when illness stopped me completing my degree.

This is why women like Katherine Johnson (portrayed by Tajari P. Henson in the film Hidden Figures) has my undying admiration. She served this country when she didn’t have the right to vote. She helped this country garner the prestige of winning the space race when she couldn’t buy a home next to her white colleagues. She had to temper her brilliance, yet excel at her work in era where the toxic brew of racism and sexism was the norm. I doubt my pride would have let me reach the heights of technical brilliance that she and her colleagues did. Ms. Johnson performed her duties with quiet dignity and we are now able to bask in the glow of her accomplishments  and show the next generation able to how fantastic black female mathematicians and scientists can be.

Johnson was born in 1918 in the little town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was a research mathematician, who by her own admission, was simply fascinated by numbers. Fascinated by numbers and smart to boot, for by the time she was 10 years old, she was a high school freshman–a truly amazing feat in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade for those could indulge in that luxury.Her father, Joshua, was determined that his bright little girl would have a chance to meet her potential. He drove his family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where she could continue her education through high school. Johnson’s academic performance proved her father’s decision was the right one: Katherine skipped though grades to graduate from high school at 14, from college at 18.

Continued at: Katherine Johnson: The Girl Who Loved to Count | NASA

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