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Black History Month Spotlight: Katherine Johnson

When you think about Black women in STEM, you are likely to assume that they are rare. With the recent release of the movie “Hidden Figures,” we begin to scratch the surface of the “Minority Unicorn” in history and technology, which is the idea that women, specifically Black women in STEM, are rare and unique. Almost impossible to come by. But does that hold true in reality? It’s important to make sure that we take a deeper look into the life stories and careers of those like Katherine Johnson to challenge this theory.

I was initially inspired to dig deeper by this 2011 interview with Katherine Johnson on the show “What Matters” on PBS. In the video below, you will hear that John Glenn specifically asked for Katherine to ensure the accuracy of his trajectory in space. This is a special request to begin with, but at the time, with race relations the way that they were in the United States, it was incredible.


Katherine Johnson herself both proves and disproves the idea of the Minority Unicorn. On the one hand, yes, she is a rarity to have been a NASA superstar at the time, especially for such a high-profile project on a global scale. On the other hand, she had an incredibly average childhood, got a good education, and excelled in a subject that she loved. Katherine had parents who encouraged her to study math, and had access to teachers and schools. After college, she was introduced to research mathematics before eventually asking to go to NASA, where she taught, and learned as any other mathematician. She proves that Black women are just as capable as anyone else. That’s much more of an unremarkable background than the “Minority Unicorn” ideology suggests.

Which leads me to my point: When you dig into the origins of computing, women were the original software developers, including women of color. Because that narrative has been buried for so long, we have created an industry that does not so easily invite — let alone accept — people of color and women. The good news? Slowly, things are getting better.

When you don’t tell the whole history of a story, many of the important players are left out, and to the victor go the spoils. Without talking about the original women in STEM, and the original people of color in STEM, we lose the ability to see the natural role models who may have come from a similar background. Without talking about all of the original engineers and mathematicians who made technology in this country so great, we toxify a story that was meant to include all of us. We lose that knowledge and perspective. We lose ourselves.

It’s important to teach Black kids, Black girls and boys, about STEM, but not because we may find a unicorn. It is important to teach Black boys and girls about STEM because they are fully capable of achieving what every other child is able to achieve. I am incredibly passionate about teaching Detroit students about development because coding is the new literacy.

I’m doing my part by sharing my passion about development with Detroit students, teaching them how to write code and, more importantly, how to navigate a world that assumes they don’t have any interest in coding. I see myself as reminding the future generation of our past successes and failures. Clearing away the dust and debris that has hidden this history from them. In doing so, I hope that I am revealing a path for future generations of men and women of color to take their place in a field where they’ve always been — but, this time, up front where they often haven’t been allowed.