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Black Arts and Culture

A Book Review: Katherine Johnson’s Autobiography Makes Good Reading For Young Readers

Johnson, Katherine.  Reaching for the Moon. The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon and Shuster, 2019, pgs. 249, $17.99.

By Dr. Margaret Bernice Smith Bristow

    “There it is,” she admonished, “read it!” That was the exact command, 101-year-old Dr. Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson gave to me (vis a vis her autobiography Reaching for  the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson) just published five months ago.

It is divided into seven well-orchestrated, well carved out chapters that will make not only a young reader but an older reader, appreciate the part this black mathematician played in helping to land a man on the moon, thus finally beating the Russians in the space race! Told in the voice of a quiet grandmotherly griot, this mother of three chronicles her humble birth (August  26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West, Virginia): youngest of four siblings; her rearing;  her schooling; her marriage;  her  working at NACA later changed to NASA on up to her retirement in 1986.   

Consisting of 38 pages, Chapter 1 sets the very simple and brutally honest tone for the rest of the chapters. It begins with four-year-old Katherine trying to help her brother Charlie ( two years older than her) figure out his math homework. She has seen how her parents’ sincere  efforts had failed. Sandwiched within this chapter, is Katherine’s frank explanation for why her  school Mary Mcleod Bethune Grade School was on a dirt road and the white children’s school set on a paved road. Separate but unequal was the law of the land. And she explains how it affected every aspect of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia including the five-star hotel which allowed her father to come through the front door only when he was working carrying the guests’ luggage, etc.

Not only does the young reader get an unsanitized racial history within this first chapter, but also intriguing Native American myth as to how the Sulphur Springs were formed. Neither does she leave out gender role history. Expertly gearing her tone and language for the young adult, she also explains how the community broke some of the laws of segregation when it came to sharing farm equipment.

Though her astute father had only a sixth grade education, he and his wife Joylette wanted their four children to receive a full education that would lead them to college.  From this chapter, we see the etiology from whence Katherine got her work ethics, her sense of belonging and her confident sense of being—so much needed in forming character in a growing child. And this sense of fighting against inequity in education forced the Coleman family to leave the comfortable home that her father Joshua built to take the eight hour drive to where all four children could receive a better education.

We journey on to Chapter 2. With the rugged unmitigated determination to get an education like that of our first black Gloucester lawyer, T.C. Walker which he so well describes in his autobiography under the Honey Pod Tree, Joshua and Joylette Coleman in 1926 moved their four children to a rented house in Institute, West Virginia where soon to be called West Virginia State College provided them an education beyond seventh grade.  Katherine started high school at just 10 years old!  WE commend Katherine for not hiding the racism that they were exposed to in working at the 250 room Greenbriar Hotel where her two brothers sometimes played tennis with John and Bobby Kennedy.

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At 14 she entered West Virginia State College!  It was there Dr. William W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third black man to earn a doctorate in math told Katherine she would be a good research mathematician.  In the midst of her graduating at 18 in 1937 summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French, having earned the highest grade point average in all the college’s first 46 years, Katherine never failed to describe the lynching that still sets like an abscess on America’s spine.  She reminds us lynching didn’t become a federal crime until 2018!

In colorful, readerly details, this 2015 winner of the highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, went on to teach at Carnegie Elementary School in Marion, Virginia in 1937 where she met her husband Jimmy after entering West Virginia University as one of its first black students.  After introducing her father to Jimmy Goble, the reader is filled with a heightened sense of suspense: why did her father Joshua not encourage her to marry him?  After getting married, moving to Hampton to work at NACA, and having three beautiful girls—Joylette, Connie, and Kathy—Jimmy died of a brain tumor in 1956. Katherine is left a widow at 39.

Her father confessed that he saw early death in Jimmy’s face when he first him!  Katherine later married Lt. Col. James Johnson August 1959 at Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church. (He recently died and was funeralized there). Like her father who supervised the building of her home on Mimosa Crescent in Hampton, she was determined to see that all three daughters graduate from college.

All three did with the oldest Joylette working as a mathematician at NASA formerly called NACA. Later she moved to New Jersey due to the fact racism in Hampton, Virginia would not hire her husband to work as an accountant, according to Dr. Johnson. (Remember she has several honorary doctorate degrees.)

Chapter 6-7 quietly scream Dr. Johnson’s success at NASA where she spent 33 years still guided by her father and mother’s perseverance principles first described in Chapters 1-3.

Because of Dr. Johnson’s phenomenal skill in math, she was able to double check using her human computer manual skills the accuracy of John Glenn’s flight into space, February 20, 1962.  She did the same with Alan Shepherd on the Freedom 7.  And of course with Neil Armstrong, the first to land on the moon in Apollo II, July 16, 1969. (Of note is the fact she says she owns one of the flags that went to the moon!)

For her achievements such as the newest building at Langley NASA in 2017 being named after her: the Katherine Goble Johnson Computational Research Facility and the many dozens of wards that decorate her living room at her retirement apartment, this 101-year-old great grandmother is still humble.

“ I was always a member of a team.” Putting in 14-16 hour days in order to get the job done, she also admits “of course, my lighter skin color, which some white people saw as less threatening, and more like them, played a role in that (178).

As for her evaluation of the movie Hidden Figures, she says “it was 75%” accurate.” She mentioned she had her own set of pearls before she worked at NASA! And she never had to go way across NASA to go to the “colored” bathrooms! 

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In terms of my evaluation for suggestions for improvement—very few of this autobiography—I suggest time framing be improved and the correction of Virginia being the lynching capital of the U.S. (1800-1940). It was not; Florida was.

Read the award- winning book Hidden Figures by Hampton native Margo Lee Shetterly, and you will see some of the inaccuracies once it went on screen—something beyond her control. 

This award winning aeronautical mathematician said “Our goal was to make the trip to the moon less risky than going for a drive in a Corvette on a Sunday afternoon.” And a risk she took in simply telling the whole story of our race with space and with “race.”

Please give this as a Kwanzaa (zawadi) or Christmas gift to a young adult in your life. Or an adult! There it is. Read it!

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