Photo by Francisco Schmidt via Flickr
I recently saw Hidden Figures at the Westwood Village theater and it was inspiring, to say the least. The phenomenal (and I do mean phenomenal) movie is about three Black women who worked at the Langley Research Center as scientists and mathematicians who helped launch NASA’s first successful space missions in 1962. It starred my favorite actresses: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer. I left the movie feeling refreshed like I found a piece of my identity and had a better sense of who I am as a Black woman. One question angered me, however, as I pondered the history told in the movie: Why wasn’t I taught this in school?
In my 18 years of education, I’ve learned about the American forefathers, constitution, Emancipation Proclamations but I’ve never learned a history that inspired me until I saw Hidden Figures. Why haven’t I learned about Marie Maynard Daly or Percy Lavon Julian? Their names deserve to be splattered in history textbooks and sprinkled in unit lessons just as much or more than some of our presidents. Teaching children the inspiring history of faces who look like them can open so many doors for our youth.
So here are 7 African Americans in science that we should know:
- Marie Maynard Daly- Biochemist and first Black woman to earn a Ph.D in Chemistry
- Percy Lavon Julian- Research Chemist and pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants
- Roger Arliner Young- Zoology, Biology, and Marine Biology Scientist and the first African American woman to receive a doctorate degree in Zoology
- Neil deGrasse Tyson- Astrophysicist, Cosmologist, Author, and science communicator.
- Mae C. Jemison- Engineer, Physician and NASA astronaut. She became the first African-American woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992
- Ernest Everett Just – Biologist, Academic and Science Writer. Just’s primary legacy is his recognition of the fundamental role of the cell surface in the development of organisms.
- Sylvester James Gates- Theoretical Physicist, known for work on supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory.
Being uninformed of the many people of color in science is linked to the lack of diversity in science. According to pewresearch.org, there is an “underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce. And access to science information may also play a role in how well people cultivate an understanding of the subject.” This lack of diversity among African Americans in science is directly correlated to African American students not being taught their history on the subject. There can be no progress until young African American children are taught about Neil deGrasse Tyson the same way they are taught about Andrew Johnson and Amelia Earhart and Adolf Hitler. The Scientista Foundation says it perfectly, “Diversity, access, equity and inclusion are and remain issues which impede progress.”
This movie has potential to be inspirational to future generations for women of color in science. This history needs to be taught so that future generations can know that they aren’t alone and that their efforts will be recognized and appreciated for years to come.
I urge teachers to teach students about their history in school. What use is history if a student can’t apply it to their own life, feel inspired by it, and feel like they can make history themselves?