“Hidden Figures” Shines Light on Black Women Math Genius: Katherine Johnson and Contributions to American Space Race

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Real Life Katherine Johnson pictured right (Credit: NASA) & Taraji P Henson pictured left (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Queue my inner black girl nerd who also loves movies!

“Hidden Figures” is a movie set for release in January 2017 about the (finally getting its DUE) history on the black women “computers” at NASA. Black women who contributed to the space race using their expertise in math and science to help Americans launch into space, orbit the earth and eventually get to the moon.

Taraji P. Henson (of Empire),  Octavia Spencer  (Academy Award Winner from The Help)  and the amazingly musically talented  Janelle Monáe, play the important figures in the story.

Henson plays Katherine Johnson,  the woman at the center of Hidden Figures. Katherine Johnson was a physicist, space scientist, and mathematician who contributed to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs. She was a math genius who calculated the trajectories for Project Mercury (the space program before Apollo)and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon.

Her calculations were so reliable, that even once NASA had moved to actual computers, Astronaut John Glenn, who was the among the first American men to go into orbit (and later became a US Senator) insisted they check the computer’s math against Katherine’s because if the computer matched Katherine’s math work, then the computer was right.

The debut of such a movie whose story has long been hidden in the history of NASA is amazing, especially to tell the story of black woman’s genius in a subject where people of color of any race are still few today.

Katherine Johnson was so gifted she skipped several grades starting high school at age 10 and graduated from West Virginia State College at age 18.

Johnson and her colleagues came of age and received their educations at the height of segregation. There only options at the  time with the schooling they had as Johnson has said in an interview was to be a “nurse or a teacher”. Their story is extraordinary for the time considering the limitations placed on black people in the US and particularly black women.

For Johnson’s contributions to America’s efforts to get to space she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom award on November 24, 2015, cited as a pioneering example of African American women in STEM.

 

If you can’t wait until January to see more of this story come to life, check out Katherine Johnson’s interview with MAKERS, a site that aims to collect women’s stories in the nation.

http://www.makers.com/katherine-g-johnson

 

Triumph over History: The Simones & the 2016 Olympics

Last week the 2016 Olympics was and continues to be this week a triumph for black women in sports.

Michelle Carter, an African American, was the first US woman to win gold in the shot put.  And Alyson Felix became the first most decorated woman in American track and field history, surpassing even her idol and mentor, Jackie Joyner-Kersey.

With the gold medal wins of swimmer Simone Manuel and increasing medal count of 2016’s Olympic gymnast star Simone Biles no doubt #blackgirlmagic #blackwomenlead and ALL the hashtags affirming the awesomeness that is black women were on parade.

With all of the great wins for African American women in the Olympics, it is Simone Manuel and Simone Biles’s medals  in their sport that have particular poignancy. The Simones triumphed in their respective sports, both sports that because of segregation racial and/or economic has been traditionally out of reach for athletic achievement for communities of color.

Simone Biles won all around gold in gymnastics in Rio last week, which is a gold medal for being the best at all the gymnastic events for women (vault, uneven bars, floor, and balance beam). And as of last night she is the first woman to win four gymnastics golds in a single Olympic Games, since 1984 and the first American to do.  Biles follows directly in the footsteps of her teammate Gabby Douglas, another young African American woman gymnast who won all around gold in the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Simone and Gabby do come from a line, albeit very short, of black female gymnasts who’ve made it to the Olympics. Among Simone and Gabby’s predecessors are Dominique Dawes (who was a member of the 1996  Olympics US Women Gymnastics team aka the Magnificent Seven and became the first African American to win an individual Olympic medal in women’s gymnastics); Betty Okino who was part of the Olympic Team in 1992;  and the first African American Olympic female gymnast was Luci Collins in 1980, however the team did not compete due to the US boycott of the games that year.

Black women are not new to gymnastics. However with the  Olympics being the apex of achievement  for gymnasts and the most visible platform for the sport one would think so. There have been many more black women and girls who have competed in college or at the US National and World Championships. However, participation in gymnastics has never been super strong for the African American community.  In 2007, USA Gymnastics commissioned a study to measure the diversity within the sport. They found that just a little under 7 percent of the overall gymnastics population in the U.S. was African American. African Americans make up over 13% of the population in the US.

There are probably a couple of reasons for this disparity.  It is not traditionally been a very heavily promoted sport in the African American community. Why? well one reason is very clearly about financial access. Whereas someone who wants to do track and field can easily compete in most any public and middle high school in the country. Gymnastics is a sport that has increasingly become one where one needs to have serious financial resources to train.

As someone who participated in gymnastics at gymnastics club before I shot up like a beanstalk, it’s expensive for a family. According to the online personal finance site, Cheat Sheet it’s one of the more expensive sports in which to involve children.

A quick look at the NBC Gold Map confirms that. The Gold Map is NBC’s attempt to encourage interest in sports by directing that energy from watching the Olympic games to taking classes or getting active again. At one gymnastics training center in my area it’s $85 for one one hour class a week ($340 a month) and around $42 for a 30 minute class ($168). Another training center had about $80 to $95 for a five week term. Not bad right? Well that’s for one class a week, if you want to make more starts to add up, even with discounts.

If you are in competitive gymnasts and you want to develop that skill set further to get to being a competitive gymnast ? It costs on average between $150 and $300 per month. This is not including the costs for registering and traveling to gymnastic meets, gym training,  individual trainers, and uniforms adds up. Cheat sheet says you are looking easily $4,000 annually per child.That’s groceries and bills for some families, and while fundraising can sometimes help you get around that, it’s not continuously sustainable.

In the areas where gymnastics are offered at the YMCA or other public facilities, it’s cheaper overall and allows the opportunity for more exposure of a great sport to a diverse community, but as gymnastics has grown as a competitive sport, gymnastics have moved to more private clubs and gyms with sizable fees which only more upper income families to wealthy families can comfortably pay. Gymnastics training become even more expensive and exclsuive further reduced the number of Americans, particularly in communities of color where the wealth spread is significantly smaller, who might have the talent but not the resources to be involved in gymnastics at the competitive level.

Similarly, lack of access is at the heart of Simone Manuel’s amazing win. Yes it’s 2016,  and the first African American woman finally won an individual medal in an Olympic swimming event. And it was 2000, when the first African American ever won an individual medal in a swimming event, Anthony Ervin. But that’s not because of the popular belief black people are incapable of physically learning how to swim or float or any of that general racist trope that surrounds why black people aren’t in the pool.

According to research from the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis, 70 percent of African-Americans do not know how to swim. Why? It’s because we haven’t had the opportunities to swim due to an ugly history with segregation and the response to mandated desegregation.

Quick history lesson: segregation in the US and public swimming evolved together. Recreational swimming became popular in the U.S. only during the 1920s and 1930s.  By the time swimming was recognized as a sport in the 1950s, segregation was firmly entrenched as a way of life and law in the United States. In response to court mandated desegregation after decades of segregated pools, many public pools were closed to avoid black children swimming with white children. This left many black children to continue swimming in unsafe areas such as canals and unsupervised ponds. This led to subsequent tragic drownings that could have been avoided had they been at a public pool with a lifeguard and other experienced swimmers at hand. Pools did pop up in black communities post segregation but they were low in quality and size.  Combine that with the lack of access to the elite swim clubs one needs to seek out to train to be a swimming champion and a history complicated by segregation compounds itself. It is no surprise then that Simone Manuel came from a more upper income background that provided her the access to swim competitively. For more knowledge on this evolution of swimming in the US and race you can check out the book: Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools  or some shorter articles: here, here, and here

Segregation in the pool was so entrenched that when the famously talented and beautiful black actress, Dorothy Dandridge dipped her foot in a hotel pool for a photo shoot, the hotel drained the pool.

And when black and white

Motel manager pouring acid in the water when black people swam in his pool, 1964
Via RareHistoricalPhotos.com

protestors jumped in a motel pool in Florida in 1964 the manager responded by dumping acid into the pool.

With so many black people of a generation unable to swim due to lack of access, their children and their children’s children learned to swim in less numbers; the USA Swimming Foundation study shows that “if a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim.”

So yes it’s ridiculously significant Simone Manuel’s swim and gold medal, (and Anthony Ervin’s prior, who himself also made an amazing comeback in the 2016 games to get a gold medal again)

It’s not just Simone Biles and Simone Manuel’s wins that are incredible because of their athleticism, but to think of the amazing wins of African Americans in sports, where black participation was minimized and in one sport, forced out. Like Maya Angelou, said “I still rise”

It’s not just swimming and gymnastics that we are seeing barriers slowly breaking in sports that have long been exclusive racially and/or economically.

In tennis, we see the legacy of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson in the Williams sisters, particularly Serena Williams whose total of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, ties her  with tennis great Steffi Graf, marking  the joint record for the most Major wins by a tennis player (male or female) and Serena is tied for second on the all-time list of grand slams behind Margaret Court.

In golf, we have seen the successful rise of Tiger Woods, and successors slowly follow like Joseph Bramlett and Harold Varner III who are the first black players to get a spot on the PGA tour after Tiger Woods.

And in fencing…..yes the sport where being a wicked good with a sword as Zorro or the Three Musketeers gets you a medal, Ibitihaj Muhammad, an African American, who also had the distinction of being the first American woman to compete in the Olympics with a hijab, helped the US Fencing Team win a bronze medal!

It is an amazing time to watch the Olympics and see the world open for little girls of color who see themselves not only in the track and field stars but now the gymnasts, swimmers, fencers, tennis and golf players.

We hear how many teen and college aged swimmers like Katie Ledecky, the first woman to sweep the 200, 400, & 800 meter freestyle were inspired  by Michael Phelps swims early in their career.

We know seeing is believing especially amongst underrepresented communities, I look forward to what the future will bring after the 2016 Olympics.

What Hillary’s Nomination for President Can Mean to Women of Color

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Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic Party nomination for President

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of being attendance at the 2016  Democratic National Convention when Hillary Clinton received the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

That whole week was historic to not only witness the first African American President of the United States give his final speech to the Convention of the Party that nominated him for President 8 years ago, but to watch him pass on the baton to the presumptive nominee, a woman.That moment, including the moments leading up to Hillary’s speech Thursday night, will be one I and many others in that Convention Arena will never forget. Regardless of where you stood in the Democratic primary or in politics in general, Hillary Clinton was the first woman of a major political party to capture the nomination for President, and that’s an achievement for women in politics worth recognizing.It never seemed quite like this was possible, much like it never seemed it was possible for a black man, especially one with a very ethnic name to be elected President of the United States.

There has been many think pieces about what this means for women in the United States. All agree it’s a historic moment for women, after that there are varying levels of response regarding Hillary’s candidacy as a woman. Some express a frustration she could be more liberal.  Others dislike the fact she is part of the Clinton family, and are concerned about a dynasty, given that her husband was President of the US for most of the 1990s.

But others expressed an interesting perspective I have thought of on and off since the Convention in Philadelphia ended.

What does her election mean for women of color?

Some have created images to indicate the answer

An original cartoon strip from Kevin Necessary shows a white boy, black boy, and white girl, who all in the panels say that one day they could be President.

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Another followed it, the cartoon strip now edited to add another panel with a girl of color

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and another edited image below of the cartoon strip showed the character Celie in the film version of The Color Purple (played by Whoopi Goldberg) at the end of it.

 

I could be President (w:Celie)

The use of Alice Walker’s Celie, whose character is often abused and neglected throughout the story of The Color Purple  is a pointed one. An image that reminds us often the status of women of color, particularly black women in the US and like in many things in this moment of celebration for women’s rights, women of color again, are left behind.

There is a point to this sentiment.

In the US Presidential election, while women of color have run for President, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley-Braun etc, none have ever had the financial backing and support to be considered a “viable” candidate in a Presidential primary.

Reproductive justice, writer and activist Imani Gandy said in an interview with Vox: “Representation absolutely matters. But it’s a sticky wicket when you’re a black woman. Obama’s candidacy felt far more momentous to me than Clinton’s.”

It’s not as if women of color,  don’t get sexism or misogyny. We do, we just also feel the experience of our race and/or ethnicity as well.

The last 8 years of Obama’s Presidency only served to remind us what we already knew. We are not a post racial society. And certainly the 2016 Presidential election has been a craptastically awful reminder sexism in politics and the larger society when it comes to seeing women in leadership has not lowered it’s head even in the slightest. Combine those two together and it’s a stark reminder of how much further women of color have to go and what must be at times endured to succeed in politics and public service.

This year, after 8 years of service Congresswoman Donna Edwards, an African American woman stepped up to run for the US Senate in Maryland against her colleague Congressman Chris Van Hollen, she gained many endorsements including one from the powerful pro-choice Democratic women’s PAC, Emily’s List. However, Edwards didn’t gain the support of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and many of her fellow members in the Congressional Black Caucus, and there were many who eschewed supporting her, some for benign reasons on policy or political tactics differences  on how to get things done others in Congress but others for reasons that could only be construed as illustrative of the racial bias that still permeates the experience of women of color running for office. It was the Senate President Mike Miller, who in his endorsement of Congressman Chris Van Hollen said, Van Hollen was “born to the role”.

Edwards lost that primary. And there were many strong feelings about that primary race particularly. There was also strong feelings about the lack of support for many other black women who’ve run in primaries and never received the backing they need within the Democratic Party establishment to be successful, especially when black women are the most reliable voting base of the Democratic Party.

There just aren’t many African American women fielded as  US Senate Candidates or Gubernatorial Candidates on either side of the aisle. These women do exist though. These positions are  important because they are viewed as the stepping stone to the White House and few and far in between have been held by black women and the same goes for Latina and Asian women. The last time a black woman was elected to the US Senate was in 1992. And currently we have one woman of color in the US Senate now, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who is Asian-American.

The stats of women of color in public office are abysmal and have been historically.

According to the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) that tracks women in elective office trends, regardless of political party affiliation, these are the numbers of women of color in elective office:

Women of color constitute 6.2% of the total 535 members of Congress (1 women of color in the US Senate, Mazie Hirono (HI) first Asian American woman elected to the US Senate)

Women of color constitute 2.6% of the total 312 statewide elective executives, this includes the first women of color to serve as governors (Susanna Martinez of New Mexico and Nikki Haley of South Carolina)

Women of color  constitute 5.4% of the total 7,383 state legislators.

In the nation’s 100 largest cities, six women of color currently serve as mayors.

So yes, as a woman of color, particularly a black women, it could be justifiably harder to feel moved by the moment of Hillary Clinton capturing the nomination of a political party, when we see our path to political leadership in politics as women color is even more obfuscated.

However even  with Congresswoman Edwards’ loss there is hope to increase the numbers for women of color in the US Senate in the 2016 election cycle

California Attorney General, Kamala Harris who is part African American and South Asian has a shot to win a US Senate Seat in California this fall.  Her opposition is California Congresswoman, Loretta Sanchez, who is a Latina. So either way, California gets a woman of color US Senator.

Nevada’s  former Attorney General, Catherine Cortez Masto, a Latina, has a shot at picking up Nevada’s US Senate seat.

Illinois Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, an Asian American, if elected Senator would also further Asian American representation in Senate.

I am relatively young. I only became involved in politics only 12 years ago. But perhaps it was all of this change I’ve started to see, even in the last decade, in spite of the challenges, that caused this woman of color to be moved to tear up on the night of Hillary accepting the nomination.

It was the same out of nowhere tears that came to my face on Election Night 2008 when I realized my President was black. But now my eyes watered with the knowledge that comes from age  and experience in politics and life that the struggle for parity in representation of women and people of color in politics  and across all sectors of society is still real.

I teared up for those who’d been fighting a whole lot longer than me.

I teared up for my mother who negotiated with my grandfather the chance to keep going to school past age 14, the age  when my grandmother was married and all of my female ancestors were expected to get married.

I teared up for my mother in law, who never got a college degree, even though she tested at gifted capacity on every test she ever took because for a working class family in 1960s Texas, the little money her family had, had to go to send her only brother to college. Men can do something with a degree, women couldn’t.

I teared up to see a girl nerd like Hillary get the nomination and for all the times, that despite my being a defiant girl nerd, (a black girl nerd at that!) so many girl nerds felt the pressure to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty and femininity to be an acceptable girl (thanks to magazines and movies) and you know what? Sometimes I felt that need to, if it just made my life easier.

I teared up for Hillary, who despite being knocked down, dared to be an openly brilliant assertive woman who contributed to politics and policy alongside her husband, not blending into the background as was expected of a political wife.  She broke the rules that a male dominated society wrote for her to conform as a political wife, sometimes, many times, she paid a price for that in public.

I teared up for the many women whose names we know and we’ll never know, who broke every rule that male dominated society wrote for them to conform, so that they could live a life determined only by themselves.

And I teared up for those many women who never did or could.

As a friend said to me and many others have repeated in a common refrain since then about Hillary  “with all the sexism and misogyny lobbied at her daily, I don’t know how she gets out of bed every day”. Hillary has still got back up and kept going as so many of us have done.

On the night Hillary accepted the nomination, I said as a black woman, thanks to President Barack Obama since 2008, I can tell my sons they can be anything including President of the United States. I could technically tell my daughters too, but let’s be honest, I LOVE President Obama, but he is still a man.

Because of Hillary Clinton, I can tell my daughters, they can aspire for the same. Because yes even though she is a white woman who has had more access than most, we as a gender have come that much closer to seeing women of color in office

Michelle Obama said it best:

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves—and I watch my daughters—two beautiful intelligent black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House law. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters—and all our sons and daughters—now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States”

What a time to be alive.