Hidden Figures, Hidden Legacy

August 24, 2016


The graphic above displays several remarkable women. The most remarkable of them is undoubtedly Katherine G. Johnson. The group next to her is a portion of a sisterhood of fewer than 100 African-American women to ever achieve physics PhDs in this country. As physicists we are all mathematicians by default. The converse, however, is not usually true; but there can be exceptions as Mrs. Johnson so eloquently demonstrated.


Unfortunately, it took the buy-in of #Hollywood film producers to bring notoriety and awareness to this amazing woman’s achievements. A by-product of the delayed acknowledgment of her contributions to space flight is also the lack of familiarity with her work by some of the women in the photo, myself included. For the record, this piece is NOT about riding the coattails of this movie and the accompanying, yet long overdue spotlight on Katherine Johnson. It IS about the anonymous shoes that the #AAWIP collectively walked in without some, if not most, of us knowing about the monumental contributions that were made by her to advance space flight.


Most of us had or still have some affiliation with one of the various #NASA sites around the country. I spent the summers of 1985 and 1986 at Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA while Mrs. Johnson was still working there! As a native of Hampton, I have spent the past couple of months wondering if we crossed paths in the #LaRC cafeteria, have we been in the same supermarket or shopping mall at the same time, or come into contact in any way. I wonder what I could have gained from interacting with her to talk about science and math.


I am saddened, frustrated and extremely disappointed that I may never get to meet her because of the Hidden Figures publicity engine; that does not mean that I am not proud and overjoyed for her recognition. She is iconic in my eyes because of her work, her intellect, and her ability to navigate in an environment that has been historically steeped in entitlement for Caucasian men. Had Katherine Johnson’s story not been told, she would become one of the world’s best kept secrets; and Hollywood should not be relied upon to be the spokesperson for, nor provide validation of intellectual greatness and aptitude. It is the duty of the #AAWIP and other like organizations to ensure that the story continues to be told after Hollywood moves on to the next project. We are relevant, we are capable, we are phenomenal. Katherine Johnson showed the world that this is indeed true.

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