by William “Duke” Smither
“Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism…” Oprah Winfrey
The way I see it, racism AND sexism happens to be America’s 5th dimension of bigotry- more like pawns- on the ‘sociopolitical chessboards of life’, like the bane of barefaced bigotry against women, especially African-American women. Yet, on the flipside of this sociopolitical cultural clash, I truly believe that ‘excellence’ will forever be its panacea- yes, even until hell freezes over!
Surely, America’s black engineering, science and technology communities know exactly what I’m talking about.
At least, that was my paraphrasing take within the Backstreet Blog posting, on July 6, 2015, concerning the lifelong pursuits of ‘excellence’ by Katherine Goble Johnson ( http://backstreetdjeli.com/2015/07/06/crushing-the-dou…ne-goble-johnson/ ), now more famously portrayed in the December 2016 movie release of “Hidden Figures.”
Arguably, in my opinion, the concept of ‘excellence’ in the African-American community might have been more widely pursued during the years of racial segregation, when we were forced to pool our creative talents and innovation, rather than the comparatively disjointed community fragmentation we see, today.
As a child, on the cusp of the desegregation years, I personally witnessed perhaps more cohesion and cooperative behavior in the black community than what seems to be apparent, today. On the other hand, segregation’s degree of social stratification was decidedly less, by comparison. But, the demonstrative journey within Katherine Goble Johnson’s pursuit of excellence, as well as her parents, is remindful of the individual potential of each element of our nation’s building block(s)- the family.
Kudos to the Hampton, Virginia native and author, Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the nonfiction book version, which kick-started the hoopla surrounding the biographical drama film. And, kudos to her parents- Robert B. Lee, III, and Margaret G. Lee- who provided the nurture and structural environment which nourished the soul of this unique author.
In 2010, Margot Lee Shetterly began researching and writing the book (“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” Publisher: William Morrow, Sept 2016, hardcover; Dec 2016, paperbacks, 368 pgs.). It concerns the period following the start of World War II when the term ‘women’ was generally synonymous with ‘computers’ at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Virginia. This included “‘colored’ computers” associated with African-American women, during that period.
In 2014, rights to “Hidden Figures” were sold to the ‘William Morrow imprint’ of Harper Collins Publishing: New York, with options to producer Donna Gigliotti of Levantine Films, who acquired the book on July 9, 2015, according to publishing industry news sources. Fox 2000 Pictures acquired the film rights for the movie. Screen writer Theodore Melfi was named director and producer. Four co-producers were named later, including Donna Gigliotta, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams.
Shetterly, herself a part of the NASA Langley Research Center family (with a Langley research scientist dad and Hampton University professor mom), summarized her work as ‘a narrative non-fiction book’ which recovers the history of pioneering African-American women within America’s space program work force as, “mathematical ground troops in the Cold War….”
She punctuated her website comments (at http://margotleeshetterly.com/) on the then work-in-progress, as situating at the “…intersection of the defining movements of the American century: the Cold War, the Space Race, the Civil Rights movement and the quest for gender equality.”
According to Shetterly, who attended Hampton’s Phoebus High School and graduated from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, it was the trailblazing women within her book that were part of America’s unheralded footnotes to history which “helped provide NASA with the raw computing power it needed to dominate the heavens” within the ‘space race’ competition between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox, the “Hidden Figures” film concerns part of a group of African-American female mathematicians- “colored” computers- whose mathematical computations were critical to the launching of NASA’s astronaut John Glenn (portrayed by Glen Powell) and others into space, in the early 1960s. In the movie, Katherine Johnson (portrayed by Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (portrayed by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (portrayed by Janelle Monae) were part of the human computer teams at NASA (see https://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/researchernews/rn_kjohnson.html and http://omeka.macalester.edu/humancomputerproject/map). The book addresses more women; but, the movie seemed to breathe new life into the book, as it received instant favorable reviews and quickly climbed to the top tiers of the National Board of Review’s (of Motion Pictures) chosen films, for 2016, and box office earnings for January 2017.
Collective Excellence: HBCUs
“Hidden Figures” also alludes to the collective ‘excellence’ of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), such as Hampton University, Virginia State University and Wilberforce University, which continue the tradition of graduating most of the African-American students who go on to earn Ph.D.s in various disciplines, today (also see, http://www.blackpast.org/historically-black-colleges-and-universities). It’s an idea of ‘excellence’ far beyond the scope of being the college of choice for many African-Americans. I’ve explained to our own kids, before they attended HBCUs, that they will get a better sense of self, there, before their quests for survival in the business world.
Though most of my undergraduate studies were at Virginia Commonwealth University, I finally graduated from another HBCU (St. Paul’s College), the same year our daughter graduated from high school. Yet, I still recall the impact that the college, in my hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky- Kentucky State University (http://kysu.edu/about-ksu/)- had on our entire community, especially its excellent core of teachers. In fact, I’ve often commented that I still feel as if I’m part of the KSU “Thorobred” family- perhaps, as much as those who may have matriculated or graduated from there. It’s difficult to explain; but, it partially includes the fact that all of my grade school “student teachers” were literally from across the road from where I attended Rosenwald Elementary, as well as many of my regular classroom teachers.
In addition, our school lunchroom was across the road, situated on KSU property. Many school activities were conducted in KSU’s gymnasium (i.e., socials, our fledgling basketball team games, etc.); and, it’s probably where my interest in acting and writing was first piqued, from the many annual school plays we rehearsed and performed there. Plus, my dad often preached on campus, though he had his own church (Corinthian Baptist Church) in the city of Frankfort. And, most of my childhood friends attended or graduated from KSU.
In high school, I ran track on KSU’s track, since my high school (Frankfort High) lacked track and field facilities; and, my coaching and workouts were many times supplemented with my informal involvement with KSU’s track team, many who came out to support me during actual meets. These were the same guys that ran my legs off, so to speak, during 600 meter “warm-ups” for 400 meter runs. A few even attended Friday night football games when I played on our own high school’s field, in the city.
At one point, during the process of applying to attend KSU, before being discharged from the Navy, I was welcomed to try out as a ‘walk-on’ in football, since it was known that I also played soccer overseas; but, I never made it back to Frankfort, after getting married in Virginia, starting a family and launching my own pursuits of a college degree, mostly via evening college studies.
BlackPasts: “Remembered and Reclaimed”
When I first wrote the blog posting about Katherine Goble Johnson, in 2015, I immediately thought about the nurturing value that black educators and black institutions must have had on her life, as well as the lives of other “‘colored’ computers” at NASA. Interestingly, her life was one of the articles I proudly contributed the writing and research to The Blackpast: Remembered and Reclaimed pages at www. blackpast.org, the 13,000-page, online global reference center for African American history and history of people with African ancestry. Mrs. Johnson’s post can be found at http://www.blackpast.org/aah/johnson-katherine-g-1918.
Additional postings by other writers who contributed research on Mrs. Johnson’s co-workers featured in the “Hidden Figures” movie can be found there, as well:
But, speaking of ‘excellence’, while you’re there, please be sure to examine President Barack Hussein Obama’s webpage, his bibliography (http://www.blackpast.org/barack-obama), as well as other links to the Obama family, his campaigns, his historic presidency, his speeches, his cabinet, the photo gallery, etc.
And, for the record, on November 24, 2015, President Obama awarded Katherine Goble Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest civilian awards of the United States for individuals who’ve made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
I’m confident that you now better understand why I quoted Oprah Winfrey’s comment, at the outset: “Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism…”