Much has been written about the
black women mathematicians who worked behind the scenes at NASA; now young
readers can hear Katherine Johnson’s story in her own words.
Johnson begins her autobiography
with her decision, at the age of 4, to start attending school with her brother
so she could help him with his math. Impressed, the teacher opened a
kindergarten class, but soon Katherine was skipping entire grades. Her family
relocated so that she and her siblings could attend high school and college
(beyond seventh grade, there was no school for “colored” youth in their
hometown). Johnson graduated college at 18 with degrees in French and
mathematics before going on to teach and pursue her now-famous career at NASA,
yet she comes across as humble and warm, passing on to her children the refrain
her father taught her as inoculation against racism: “You are no better than
anyone else, but nobody else is better than you.” Johnson describes the culture
and way of life in each of the places where she lived and worked, with an
honest portrayal of the common racial injustices and indignities alongside the
shared humanity that also existed. She artfully weaves in the heart of how African
American communities have survived and advanced—through “self-help and sacrificing”
for the next generation. Her writing style is comfortable and conversational,
making the book feel like a visit over tea that you wish would never end.
From a long-lived American legend, this
rich volume is a national treasure. (Memoir.