When I think of social justice and equal rights, the first person who comes to mind is Martin Luther King. But, we all know that he wasn’t fighting alone. His I Have a Dream Speech is one of the most familiar speeches ever heard, but, Congressman John Lewis can deliver a powerful and memorable one as well, as you will discover if you read March: Book Two. I’ve selected a few recently published memoirs or biographies by or about significant African-Americans, some more familiar to me than others. What they all have in common is a drive to excel and a belief in what they were striving for – something that will resonate with today’s readers of all ages.
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Young Readers Edition) by Misty Copeland (The 2014 edition has been nominated for YALSA’s 2017 Popular Paperback for Young Adults in the biography category)
This is a recently published young readers’ adaptation of Copeland’s 2014 memoir about her becoming the first African-American principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre history. Despite not having started dancing until age 13, Misty’s talent allowed her to transcend her rough home life. Her family didn’t have much money, and she had a series of stepfathers growing up. As her talent brought her notice, she became embroiled in a custody battle between her mother and her ballet teacher, leading her to go to court to petition for emancipation. She is also frank about the prejudice she experienced as a black dancer, including the belief by some who said that black dancers had no place in classical ballet. “This is for the little brown girls,” Copeland says, but her inspiring story will be embraced by readers of all races.
The author’s father worked at NASA as did so many others in her community that she just assumed that “that’s just what black folks did.” She profiles four black women (Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden) who during World War II, were hired as “computers” – or female mathematicians by Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, in VA under NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) – later to expand to become NASA. At a time when educated black women good in math were only expected to become math teachers, these women helped the U.S.’s successes in space aeronautics. Women hired at Langley were as good or better at computing than the men but few were classified as mathematicians because that would mean they’d be on equal footing as the men. Instead, they were classified as “sub professional” and paid less than the men. The Fair Employment Practices Committee under President Roosevelt had opened up job opportunities for African Americans, desegregating the work force during the war.
Dorothy Vaughan joined the NACA in 1943 and was the first to be promoted into a management position. Mary Jackson was the first black women to become an engineer at NACA. Katherine Johnson’s math skills helped put the first American in orbit around the Earth. Christine Darden became an expert on supersonic flight and her groundbreaking research on predicting sonic booms continues to be used today. These women opened the door for other women to become mathematicians as a career. This book, and the adult version, are the basis of the upcoming film Hidden Figures starring Octavia Spencer (as Dorothy Vaughan), Taraji P. Henson (as Katherine Johnson), Janelle Monáe (as Mary Johnson) but doesn’t include a portrayal of Christine Darden because the film focuses on the years before she started at NASA.