Up Next

Appreciation

Katherine Johnson taught us about erasure

She was a NASA mathematician whose calculations contributed to the successful Apollo 11 mission and was unknown until the late 2010s

Katherine Johnson did not function in a craft with concert stages, basketball courts, or athletic fields, where many could bear witness to her gifts.

Her home runs were hit with pencil lead and chalk in small boardrooms of engineers and mathematicians, not in front of cheering fans who wanted her team to beat the other.

And because of this, Johnson faced the possibility of erasure in a way that many pioneers, especially entertainers, never had to endure. She was a NASA mathematician whose calculations contributed to the successful Apollo 11 mission and who was unknown until the late 2010s. Johnson died Feb. 24 at the age of 101.

As a scientist who uses mathematics in my own academic craft, learning about Johnson’s life was not an intellectual exercise, but a personal one. In Johnson, I see many similarities to my mother, ranging from their love of mathematics to their modesty and impenetrable focus. My connection to Johnson also reaches into my daily life: Her story reinforces my current frustrations with the lack of diversity in science and technology.

That science and technology continue to lag behind other fields in diversity further highlights the world that Johnson occupied. She thrived, more than 50 years ago, in spaces that remain, in my opinion, unwelcoming. She has since been memorialized in a bestselling book and a film both released in 2016, which made her a household name and hero to millions.

Her story isn’t solely about how black excellence allows the extraordinary ones among us to break down barriers. Her story tells us about something more basic and tragic. It is about how only tremendous talents like Johnson, combined with the fortune of being recognized, can save stories from erasure.

Still Johnson’s life contains many lessons that should resonate with us. Her story isn’t solely about how black excellence allows the extraordinary ones among us to break down barriers. Her story tells us about something more basic and tragic. It is about how only tremendous talents like Johnson, combined with the fortune of being recognized, can save stories from erasure.

She not only demonstrates the power of incorrigible determination, but is also a symbol for the heroes we’ll never know. This reminds me what is most destructive about racism and sexism: Not only have they denied millions of worthy people access to institutions, they have denied the right to have many of our stories told.

So, to celebrate the life of Johnson is to celebrate the many pioneers who will forever remain nameless. She is all of them: a beacon of excellence and a testament to the infinite powers of the once invisible.

 

C. Brandon Ogbunu, a New York City native, is a computational biologist at Brown University. His popular writing takes place at the intersection between sports, data science, and culture.