Not a bad life, a life no one knew about

Published 1:59 pm Monday, April 13, 2020

Of the many inexplicable things I’ve seen, the most inexplicable to me is the life of Katherine Johnson. You know that she died recently at 101 years old, and you probably know that she was the central figure in the movie “Hidden Figures” a year or so ago.

She was the black woman at NASA who sent John Glenn to orbit the earth in 1962 and brought him safely home. He said he would not go unless “Mrs. Johnson,” as he called her, personally ratified the computer calculations that said all this was possible and all systems were go.

How did we not know this? How did we not know she was the one? The year was 1962; the date, Feb. 20. John Kennedy was president, alive and vibrant, and on our side, we said, in the battle for our rights. But he never said a word. He had to know. But he never said a word. He met with Dr. King and others; he knew the March on Washington was brewing; he saw black children in the South attacked by dogs and fire hoses, their mind capacities denied and denigrated. But he never spoke her name or said outright that she had been the one most responsible for John Glenn’s space flights, three times, around the world.

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletter

Receive daily headlines and obituaries

You know what else?

No news reported it either; not The New York Times, not ABC, NBC, or CBS, not The Vicksburg Evening Post. No one. It never “leaked” or “slipped.”

There were many who knew or believed that she had the most formidable mathematical mind of her time. Glenn wanted her eyes to be the last ones on the flight paths and calculations, and her consent to go.

But we never knew.

I don’t know what motivated — or initiated — Margot Lee Shetterly’s book called “Hidden Figures,” ironically referring to both the enormously complicated mathematical numbers they calculated by hand for the space trajectories, and the women themselves who were first “used,” then “hidden” beneath this country’s race-based needs not to know it. But she happened on the perfect words to name and call them both.

I also remember reading that early in his career, Kennedy, while acknowledging the value of one (white) woman’s work to his office operations, said “No dame on the planet is worth three grand a year.”

Can you imagine, then, being both black and female?

But NASA never let it slip; nothing was ever said; it was kept a perfect secret. That could not happen today. Someone, somehow, would know it, and it would come to light.

The thing is, though, there is still the need to keep the race part hidden — as though it is impossible to be that good, and black.

Alas, though, it is true.

Mary Jackson became NASA’s first (black) female engineer; Dorothy Vaughan, its first black supervisor of the then all-black and segregated women mathematicians who first helped put America in space.

And Katherine Johnson, the first to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the first black President of the United States.

But nobody, when it really happened, ever said a word.

 

Yolande Robbins is a community columnist for The Vicksburg Post.