Today, we learn that former NACA/NASA pioneer and hidden figure, Katherine Johnson has passed away. Many of us grew up not knowing Mrs. Johnson and the phenomenal work she did for NACA/NASA from 1953 to 1988.
Thousands of people admitted on social media and in interviews and private conversations that the first time they learned of Mrs. Johnson was when she and several other African American women were depicted in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures”.
Mrs. Johnson was depicted by Taraji P. Henson. The film sparked countless conversations and admissions by women, such as myself, who felt so close to the women depicted, and how we wished that we knew about them growing up because they could’ve served as the visual role models we needed to see when other people discouraged us from pursuing degrees and careers in fields that are predominantly led by men.
If you haven’t read Mrs. Johnson’s biography, a brief overview provided by NASA can be found here. I normally don’t cite Wikipedia, but there is extensive coverage of Mrs. Johnson here.
Thank you Mrs. Johnson!
Mrs. Johnson and other phenomenal women laid the foundation for other girls and women in STREAM areas. I hope that parents, schools, and great mentors begin to and continue to expose, and encourage, girls to pursue their passions in science, technology, robotics, engineering, architecture, mathematics, and other related fields.
As we still see low numbers of African American women represented in these fields, let’s be sure to not sabotage our girls by steering them to other fields that have historically been deemed “more appropriate” or “better aligned” with “girls strengths”. If they want to pursue engineering, then help open the doors to get them there.
Parents As Supporters
The engineer/technologist in me should’ve listened to my mom and dad who encouraged my love of science, technology, building and deconstructing, etc. My parents bought me books and kits on science, space, robots, technology, etc.
My dad bought me my first microscope and science kit, a computer in 6th grade, and he paid for me to take computer classes at a center that only had adult learners. He would let me work with him on the family cars, teaching me the various tools, parts, and what did what and how. My father drilled me on math as soon as I came out of the womb, always telling me the importance of math and that I was better at it than I believed.
My mom used to help me with ALL of my science projects, I mean all of them! She even played a major role in helping me design my 6th grade invention—that my parents and I didn’t think to patent, called the “Doorbell Butler”. It was then an early iteration of what is now the modern day “Ring” technology that millions of people use. Uugh every day we are reminded that we should’ve patented the idea. The iterations that led up to the modern devices all utilized elements of my invention. But no one will ever know, because I never patented mine.
Imagine your child having an idea that you help them design, you can patent it or just continue on to the next idea. We talk about patents all of the time now, but back in the day it wasn’t every day talk at the kitchen table and definitely not as it related to a child’s idea. It would’ve been cool being a 10-year-old patent holder!
Maybe you and your children have some patent-worthy ideas.
I appreciate my parents for encouraging me to try anything and everything, and pursue my passions. They exposed me to books, the arts, music, acting, sports, and much more. I fell in love with track and field as a child, and my parents never missed a track meet. Even attending my track meets in college.
Because of my parents I’m a book worm, lover of the arts, a passionate writer, athletic, and have fond memories of playing the piano and violin as a child.
My mom bought me my violin and would listen to me practice all over our home. She attended all of my piano recitals. My dad bought me a baby grand piano in 6th grade. He had visions of me playing in concerts as a classical pianist. I thought that was a far-stretch, but I still enjoyed it.
At my request, my parents would take me to acting school every single Saturday in Hollywood, CA when I was in 6th grade. Until of course my social life was begging for my attention and I started missing out on hanging out at the skating rink with my friends. Then, with my passion for skating intensifying, my parents shelled out about $200 so I could get these amazing speed skates—white with pink wheels and laces. I continued skating, almost weekly, until high school. I’m grateful for having the parents I was blessed with. Positive exposure is priceless!!!
Teachers As Instrumental or Destructive Gate Keepers
My parents invested in my passions but sadly, in high school I began to believe more in what teachers said to me. And that shaped the decisions that I made academically and professionally.
Instead of listening to my parents, I listened to teachers who “advised” me to focus my attention on being a writer, because that was my strength. They said that I wasn’t good at math so I could never work in the industries that interested me.
I even had a science teacher in high school say that the fields I was interested in were better suited for men. I should’ve repeated his words to my parents. Instead I internalized those words and began to believe that the teachers were right. We tend to believe the people who have degrees in the fields we’re interested in.
My parents majored in Business, so I chose to believe the people at my school teaching my science and math classes. Why is it we only listen to our parents as newborns and once we’re adults?
If Only I Knew
Imagine if I knew of the dynamic women at NASA! Imagine if I knew of the work they were doing. I then could’ve said, “but Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson have and are doing it, they paved the way so that I can too!”
When I was a child we didn’t have the Internet to turn to, at least not in the format that we have casually been using it since the 1990s. Growing up, you went to the library and researched using books and straining your eyes scrolling through microfiche.
So if there weren’t any books or articles published and later supplied by the school or public library, you wouldn’t read and know about the amazing people doing amazing things around the world. I would spend hours reading and collecting books to check out and take home from the library. I can’t ever recall reading a book about women, and especially not African American women, in these various industries.
Even when I think of Florence Nightingale, it is always in the context of training nurses and caring for soldiers during a war. It was never heavily stressed that she was a statistician. We only regard her as being the founder of modern nursing. And even then, the magnitude of that honor isn’t propelled as high as it should be. I will say, I’m too squeamish to have ever pursued a career as a nurse or doctor. So I would’ve thought she was cool, but never dug deeper into her story.
Heck, I don’t ever recall learning about Ada Lovelace until I was an adult, and that was because I was reading a book for personal enlightenment. Why is society so hush hush about this woman’s contribution to the world of computing? She was one of the first computer programmers and the first person to see the potential of a computing machine.
In the 1800s!
Maybe because it was the 1800s. And mathematics technology, and computing was considered “man’s work”. Heck, some still think it is.
Exposure to and of Black Women in STREAM
Maybe, just maybe during Black History Month, Marjorie Lee Browne, Evelyn Boyd Granville, Katherine Johnson, Melba Roy Mouton, and others were mentioned as being pioneers in mathematics, but it was clearly a rush job during trivia contests. It had no stickiness in my mind. It was most definitely not a part of my school’s curriculum.
I don’t know, maybe had I attended a predominantly Black school, maybe there would’ve been greater intentionality of exposing students to pioneers in this field and other industries. Maybe seeing ourselves in these women would’ve helped us appreciate mathematics more.
Maybe had I known about Mary Jackson, Christine Darden, and others then I would’ve known about the multitude of paths I could have taken in engineering. Had I known about Annie J. Easley, maybe I would’ve had greater interest in computer science.
But then again, we know of countless children who attend predominantly Black K-12 schools who are just as or more clueless about the accomplishments of thousands of Black scientists, mathematicians, engineers, architects, inventors, etc.
We have hundreds of students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that would struggle answering trivia questions about Black women in the industries mentioned.
Do we somehow see it as the responsibility of the student to seek out and find this knowledge independently? What we don’t know that we don’t know is hurting and holding us back.
Society needs to do a better job of encouraging our children to pursue whatever path they desire. So what if they fail. Failing teaches you how to succeed, it builds grit and character, and it’s quite humbling. I would rather fail at trying something I’m passionate about than sit by wishing I had taken the step to pursue my passions. Woulda, coulda, shoulda is an awful place to be.
You Can’t Be Great Again Without Girls and Women
Just about every nation around the world wants to be great, they want to be recognized world leaders. Well it’s already been proven that if girls and women are not empowered and factored into that winning strategy, as major contributors, in the industries that generate the power and influence that those in government desire—then those nations and those leaders will fail miserably.
Look at how the US is suffering and has been suffering for the past 25-plus years. We better invest in our girls and women, and do so in a positive way. If not, we won’t be holding on to this number one spot for long, and our education scores and rankings will continue to spiral and plummet.
Let’s help to raise and nurture more girls to pursue their passions, whether in STREAM-related fields, or other areas of interest. Not just some girls, all girls. Don’t block their blessings, open the doors to countless opportunities! Help them to see and be futuristic so that they can make a lasting impact, be agents of change, and build honorable legacies.
Thank you NACA/NASA for unknowingly and at times begrudgingly opening doors of opportunity for women, and specifically, African American women. I know that initially, the roles for women in NACA were thought to be mindless positions. The 1950s were an interesting time and a woman’s place was a huge debate. I know that the extra flames were fanned when the topic of race was included. The thought of Black women being as smart and smarter than their white male coworkers, definitely had to be a combative environment at times.
But soon you were forced to realize the true gems you had hidden, and you had no choice but to let those gems rise, shine, and do what they do best. I thank you for realizing that risking failure of NACA and later NASA just wasn’t worth it. You wisely bet on these women.
I thank the few astronauts who cared more about their life and returning home safely, than being caught up in the sexist and racist trap of thinking a Black woman couldn’t possibly be smarter than the man-made computers, and the men overseeing the department.
The Future is Now
We’re at a rocky time in history right now. Some men are scared of the power and force that comes from letting women do what they were born and taught to do. Some men are afraid of being seen as less superior, smart, and accomplished. Some men (including some Black men) can’t fathom seeing a Black woman in a role equal to or above their own.
What we fear we try to suppress, correct, and destroy. Let’s break this cycle. It’s destroying us as a nation, as a people.
We should be nations empowered by parents who tell their children, “yes you can!” We should see fathers creating, building and deconstructing things with their daughters, just as they would with their sons. Let’s stop this foolishness of “man’s work” and “woman’s work”. My dad told me when I was a child that all of that was pure ignorance. He said that work is work and we should all take part in getting the job done.
Copyright 2020. Natasha L. Foreman. All Rights Reserved.