Thursday, February 20, 2020

Hank Sanders: Sketches #1705 - They said it could not be done, but we did it!

  They said it could not be done, but she did it. She was female. She was Black. She was Southern. She was poor. People said she could not be a mathematician. Being a physicist was so beyond the possibility that they did not bother to say she could not be one. But she overcame all odds not only to be a mathematician and physicist but to be great. She became Black History. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  It was in the 1960s that her ability to overcome came to a head. However, Katherine Johnson had been overcoming obstacles well before the sixties. She had overcome poverty. She had overcome the belief that Black people could not do higher mathematics. She had overcome the belief that women could not do higher mathematics. She overcame and graduated Summa Cum Laude from West Virginia State College at the tender age of 18 with a degree in mathematics. They said the best she could do was teach school. And she did so for years until she got a job in 1953 at Langley, a sort of predecessor of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). However, her full skills were not even minimally utilized by Langley/NASA until the 1960s. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  When Russia put a satellite in Earth’s orbit in 1959 and followed up by putting a man in space in 1961, the entire United States of America was in shock. We were desperate to catch up to and pass Russia in this space race. In this moment of desperation, America needed the very best mathematicians to calculate the trajectories of spaceships. In their determination, they were willing to utilize a woman, even a colored (Black) woman. In stepped Katherine Coleman Johnson, who was both female and Black. She calculated critical trajectories for space flights including the acclaimed manned space flight for U.S. astronaut John Glenn. The rest is history, Black History. The movie "Hidden Figures" is based on her struggles and work and ability to overcome adversity. A U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for her was historical icing on the cake. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  Black History did not start with slavery in what is now called America. It goes all the way back five thousand years ago and beyond. Few of us know that the first great mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers were Black. They resided in the land of Kemet, now called Egypt. One of those scientists was Imhotep, the architect who designed the Step Pyramid, the very first pyramid in the world. In addition, he was a physician and a mathematician. Nearly every scientific field was developed to a high level in Kemet at the time. Almost no one in the rest of the world could conceive of anyone performing these scientific achievements. Even today they cannot be duplicated, so some will say the Pyramids were built by beings from outer space. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  At the very time that Black people were forbidden to learn to read and write in what is now called America, there were great scientists. One was Benjamin Banneker, who authored an almanac and was such a master surveyor that he was tapped to help lay out Washington, D.C., the United States Capital. They said Black people could not perform in areas that required complex calculations. However, they needed the very best minds to lay out the capital of the United States of America. They called on Benjamin Banneker, a Black man, to help calculate the layout of a whole city. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  Dr. Charles Drew discovered ways to preserve blood plasma for extended periods of time. With Dr. Drew’s invention, blood plasma could be stored and transported thousands of miles. It helped save thousands of lives, especially during wartime. He was appointed to supervise the provision of the blood plasma from the U.S. to soldiers in Europe during World War II. At first, White American leaders tried to reject blood plasma from Black people. Dr. Drew fought off this effort. Then they insisted on segregating blood plasma of Black people. Dr. Drew fought this effort without success. He resigned in protest. Dr. Drew later needed blood plasma but died because a segregated hospital in North Carolina would not admit and give him blood after a serious auto accident. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  Percy Lavon Julian was a research chemist. He was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs. He was the first to synthesize medicine which led to the large-scale chemical synthesis of human hormones, steroids, progesterone, and testosterone. He laid the foundation for cortisone and even birth control pills. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  There were thousands of Black scientists, but America, in general, has never heard of them. In fact, most Black people have not heard of them. That’s another reason why we need Black History Month. One of the few Black scientists with whom Americans are familiar is Dr. George Washington Carver. Among many other inventions, Dr. Carver developed 105 foods from peanuts. For some reason, Dr. Carver is the only scientist our segregated society allowed Black students to learn about. Schools are often named after him. A housing project in Selma, George Washington Carver Homes (GWC) is named after him. Who would have thought that 105 additional foods could be made from the little old peanut that had been around for thousands of years? They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  Most of us have to see an example before we can conceive of ourselves in such a position, vocation, or special place in life. In addition, we have to be able to identify with whomever we see in that role. Scientists break knowledge barriers. Black History involving scientists gives us an opportunity to see other Black people breaking barriers in the fields of science. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

EPILOGUE – Our culture is the topsoil that nourishes us. Our history is the roots that strengthen us. When we don’t have the right culture, we are not nourished. When we don’t have deep roots, we cannot stand strong, and any wind will blow us to and fro. Black History helps us to stand strong against the winds of adversity.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represented District 23 in the Alabama Senate from 1983 to 2018.

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