Katherine Johnson’s memoir shares the lifetime of a NASA ‘hidden determine’

My Exceptional JourneyKatherine Johnson with Joylette Hylick and Katherine MooreAmistad, $25.99

Katherine Johnson turned a family title circa 2016, when the bestselling guide and Hollywood movie Hidden Figures highlighted her function as a NASA mathematician through the house race (SN: 1/21/17, p. 28). These works showcased Johnson’s potential to carry out high-stakes calculations to ship astronauts to house, all whereas she endured racism and sexism from her colleagues. However crunching numbers for NASA is just a part of Johnson’s story. Her posthumous memoir, My Exceptional Journey, tells the remainder (SN: 2/24/20).

Cowritten with two of her three daughters, Johnson’s memoir spends surprisingly little time explaining her work at NASA. As a substitute, the guide focuses on Johnson’s private life, together with many experiences that reveal perception into america’ tumultuous race relations within the 20th century.

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Her account begins along with her childhood in small-town West Virginia. Even then, Johnson’s thirst for information was palpable: She snuck out to comply with her older siblings to highschool, peppered her mother and father and academics with questions, and counted all the pieces in sight. Whereas in faculty at West Virginia State College, Johnson determined she needed to grow to be a mathematician.

Readers rapidly see the profound obstacles that confronted educated Black individuals like Johnson. When she graduated in 1937 at age 18 with the very best GPA in her college’s historical past, Johnson had few employment alternatives. Her solely job supply was a educating gig at an all-Black elementary college.

Johnson makes use of her personal instructional and work experiences as home windows into broader points. She often pivots from her story to explain her academics’ race-based struggles and the historical past of the Black faculties she attended or served. These asides gradual the narrative however reveal one thing deeper: Johnson’s immense delight in Black instructional establishments and her gratitude to the Black educators who have been her function fashions.

Later chapters proceed zooming out from Johnson’s personal experiences to historic occasions. She describes her issues about permitting her daughters to take part in class integration. “As soon as I’d seen what these Negro youngsters skilled in Little Rock, I couldn’t unsee it,” she writes of the white mob violence confronted by Black college students integrating right into a white college in Arkansas. She additionally suggested her daughters to not take part in civil rights protests as a result of she was afraid of them getting damage or arrested. (They protested anyway.)

At occasions, nonetheless, Johnson’s historic asides appear purely expositional. Readers might need that the memoir immediately supplied Johnson’s distinctive perspective on some points. As an illustration, she describes a protest led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy — Martin Luther King Jr.’s successor as president of the Southern Christian Management Convention — in objection to the taxpayer {dollars} spent on the house race quite than poverty aid. However Johnson doesn’t share her personal reactions to this occasion.

It’s additionally clear that Johnson isn’t snug bragging about herself. She touts the careers of different completed Black scientists and astronauts, however of her personal work, she writes, “I used to be simply doing [my] job.” Which may seem to be false modesty, but it surely rings true coming from a girl who didn’t invite her personal daughters to her retirement luncheon at NASA as a result of, as she writes within the guide, she “didn’t wish to make an enormous fuss.”

Maybe extra putting than Johnson’s unwavering humility is how she confronted segregation and discrimination along with her head held excessive. When she moved to the South for her first job, her mom warned her concerning the racism she would face: “Keep in mind, you’re going to Virginia.” However Johnson simply mentioned, “Effectively, inform them I’m coming!” And when a white good friend informed Johnson that his pastor forbade Black friends at his wedding ceremony, “I simply shrugged it off,” she writes. “I used to be not going to permit his pastor’s backward views to alter my opinion of the beautiful couple.”

These examples of relentless willpower within the face of adversity linger with the reader, displaying what really makes Johnson’s journey exceptional. Sure, her mathematical genius was inspiring. Equally inspiring was her grit.

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