Katherine Johnson remembers how she felt about math growing up, “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed… anything that could be counted, I did.”
Katherine Johnson's Native Genius was insistent. So is yours.
Katherine worked as one of the first human computers in the early 1960s in the still segregated South. The presence of Black people, and certainly Black women, was rare in the sciences. Astronaut John Glenn witnessed Katherine’s Native Genius, and because of it trusted her with his life.
Even though the new electronic computers ran the calculations for his trip into space, he wanted Katherine to verify them. If she said the numbers were right, he would do the orbit. John Glenn is known for the orbit, but I never knew Katherine Johnson was behind making it happen until I saw the movie Hidden Figures.
Katherine was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where they stopped school for Black students after the eighth grade.
I can’t help but wonder how many times she recited the Pledge of Allegiance at school. I counted, and if my calculations are right, she would have said, “...with liberty and justice for all” 1440 times by the time she finished eighth grade. It’s heart wrenching for me to think of her young mind reciting that line during a time when she wouldn’t be allowed to continue school like white students. I want to look hypocrisy and systemic racism in the eye in order to build my awareness of it in the day-to-day.
I find Katherine’s Johnson’s life incredibly inspiring for many reasons. When I think about all she did through the lens of Native Genius, here’s what I see that her life still teaches us...
Someone believed in her Native Genius (Someone believes in yours)
Her family believed in her and sacrificed greatly to continue her education. Her dad drove her 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, where Black students could go to high school. Her mom got a job there as a domestic, and her dad went back home to earn his living.
She graduated high school at 14 and college at 18, with degrees in Math and French. First she taught math, then at 34 she heard that what’s now NASA was hiring Black women computers. It took a year and two applications, but she got hired.
She stuck up for her Native Genius (Are you doing this?)
She wanted to go to the briefings because she was fascinated by the whys and hows of the numbers. In a 2011 interview she said, "I just happened to be working with guys and when they had briefings, I asked permission to go. And they said, 'Well, the girls don't usually go.' and I said, 'Well, is there a law?' They said, 'No.' So then my boss said, 'Let her go.' "
Her Native Genius never went away (Neither will yours)
When she was In her nineties, she was asked if she still counts things. She referred to how insistent math and geometry were for her every day, “Oh, yes. And things have to be parallel. I see a picture right now that’s not parallel, so I’m going to go straighten it. Things must be in order.”
Her advice for you (Are you living it?)
At 99, she told an audience, “Like what you do, and you’ll do your best.” Her advice is so simple, yet how seriously do we take the importance of liking what we do?
Are you morphing in the direction of what you like to do — of what fascinates you? If you’re a leader, parent, or mentor, are you helping others morph toward what they love?
It’s one of the most important things we can do because the work we do (whether paid or not) is how we spend the bulk of our time. One of the deepest experiences of success is to make an impact from the core of who we are. Read or watch Hidden Figures to get even more inspired.