West Virginia State University last week honored alumna and iconic mathematician Katherine Johnson, unveiling a statue bearing her likeness on the campus grounds.
Johnson, who at 100 years old is receiving but a share of the accolades overdue her for breaking ground in gender and racial equity in the hyper-competitive fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, is a living symbol that human ingenuity and intelligence will always live outside of biases and census checkboxes. Movies, commencement speeches, and statues serve her legacy well.
But what serves her even better is the idea that the sector which produced her beautiful mind continues to be in the business of manufacturing great lives in the black context. To ensure that the name Katherine Johnson is not something which lives in bronze and time immemorial, HBCUs must add quickly to the art of production, to the art of marketing the women and men who follow in her footsteps.
The HBCU Digest has for more than a year produced a series “HBCU Voices of STEM Excellence.” The series promotes HBCU graduates working in a wide variety of STEM fields, all relatively young and in the blossoming years of professional excellence.
About half of the dynamic scientists featured are black women; dentists, physicians, cancer researchers, astrophysicists, and professors. About 6,000 people have listened to their stories of growing up in households where their curiosity for science was supported by black parents and surrounding communities of educators and advocates, and how that same sense of community was enhanced at an HBCU and helped set foundations for success in some of the most competitive scientific learning and working environments on the planet.
To put that in perspective, the film which helped catapult Johnson to gain a new legion of awe-inspired fans played on about 3,417 screens at its peak. This means that there have been half as many movie screens showing the story of Johnson’s work generations ago then there have been listeners of the life stories of those who are the Katherine Johnson 2.0’s of the 21st century.
‘Hidden Figures’ is a story of black women who were allowed to excel in spaces where they historically weren’t welcome. The same challenges which existed then exist today in varying degrees and forms, but because of Johnson and others, far more women are taking advantage of the opportunity to excel.
Granting opportunity is the burden of white men to carry. Promoting those who have earned opportunity should be the privilege of all of us who call ourselves advocates and lovers of HBCUs. For every story we don’t share and do not give to a young person looking for role models in industry and career, the more we make the work of Katherine Johnson and her peers irrelevant.
If our schools don’t make celebrities out of their distinguished graduates and perfect the art of viral content around professional excellence, then we have failed our best and brightest from individual and institutional perspectives; and the institutions will pay the ongoing price of not being able to attract high-caliber talent, or to cultivate philanthropy among high-earning graduates, or to broker with their employers for partnerships.
Research shows us that we say we care about good news on HBCUs, but really don’t act like it. If we continually rely upon monuments and statues to frame our story as the greatness of what was instead of that which is yet to come, it won’t be long before the people and moments we can immortalize in future generations will no longer exist in our HBCU communities.