Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician, Knows You Have a Story To Tell

Katherine Johnson, the famed NASA mathematician, battled adversity to become an undeniably important part of history. We spoke to Johnson about her autobiography, Reaching for the Moon, and her decision to finally tell her story. 

Katherine Johnson's aptitude for learning, especially mathematics, was abundantly clear from a young age. By 14, she had graduated from high school. By 18, she had graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State, a historically black college. In the 1950s, she learned about job openings at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) Langley laboratory. By 1962, Johnson was working for NASA and became an integral part of John Glenn's orbital mission. Glenn personally requested Johnson's expertise. 

Her incredible story was later chronicled in the hit film Hidden Figures, based upon the nonfiction work by Margot Lee Shetterly. We spoke to Johnson about her autobiography for young readers.

What inspired you to tell your story?

I want young people to know they can do anything they want. I lived my life following my parents’ goals for us: get an education and, through hard work, find something you’re passionate about and do it! My work ethic, curiosity, and enjoyment from learning put me on a path, and I ended up following my dream!!

What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing your autobiography?

Photo by Joylette Hylick

I am the last of my family, and my memory is not what it was! I’m just sorry I waited so long to write my story. At almost 101, I don’t have too many friends I can ask! Everyone has a story to tell. Don’t wait to tell it!

What was your favorite thing about being a teacher?

The excitement in seeing kids when they get it! I love learning and know what that interest did for me. My teaching was a way for me to try to share that excitement.

Your book recounts pivotal moments of the civil rights movement—do you see any parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement?

In the Black community, many things haven’t changed much. Economically and socially, the inequities still exist. Equality in jobs, educational opportunities, [and] living conditions are still issues to fight for.

How do you define Black excellence? What does it mean to you?

Black excellence is an EXPECTATION! “Expect nothing, you get nothing!" As a parent and a teacher, I EXPECTED my daughters/students to learn! They grew up in “a village.” They had role models in teachers, lawyers, workers, doctors, etc.... They could dream of what they wanted to be and had models right there to emulate. I know the teachers I had believed in me and wanted me to learn. The key is education. Having opportunity and options—with preparation—create pathways to excellence, Black or not!

Click here to read our starred review of Katherine Johnson's autobiography, Reaching for the Moon.

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