The American Dream and the Untold Story
of the Black Women Mathematicians
Who Helped Win the Space Race
William Morrow and Company
Even if you closely watched former President Barack Obama’s actions, you might not have noticed the administration’s less controversial deeds such as the awards of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As of this summer, more and more Americans have discovered that among the many great achievers the White House honored was a representative of a corps of truly unsung heroes. Mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson, long retired and living in Hampton, Virginia, is one of a hardly acknowledged crew of black women responsible for NASA’s (the then-National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) early success.
Those who know black life in this country during Segregation will attest that the story is nearly incredible. Yet, without Human Computer Project head Margot Lee Shetterly’s account of their experiences in the above cited book the accomplishments and struggles might have been overlooked. That too should be noted for those who flocked to movie theaters during December 2016 to check out director Theodore Melfi’s at-points-lighthearted drama, Hidden Figures.
The movie unearths and gives a nod to Johnson and mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Hoover who broke down the walls against color and gender at the then-Langley, Virginia space launch headquarters. As a review in Publisher’s Weekly promised, the text probes “relationships among blackness, womanhood, and 20th-century American technological development,” to create a work that is “crucial to understanding subsequent movements for civil rights.”
More than anything the film and book serve as a reminder of African Americans’ perseverance and adaptability as tools for survival.Those are traits many in U.S. society have cast aside, and about which many born after 1965 are unaware. The story of Johnson and the others cannot be told to often, and their strengths might need revival.