I’m visiting my aunt and uncle in Los Angeles, and we decide to watch the movie “Hidden Figures,” about three little-known Black women whose mathematical calculations were instrumental in helping NASA launch astronaut John Glenn into outer space and back.
Five minutes into the film, my Uncle Gus leans over and says matter-of-factly, “You know you have a cousin who’s the chief information officer for NASA?”
He repeats himself and drops the name: Jerry Davis.
I miss the next 10 minutes of the film as I search for this mysterious cousin on my phone. Sure enough, there he is—the chief information officer at NASA’s AMES Research Center in Silicon Valley. He looks a lot like my cousin David, I say out loud.
It’s not everyday that one learns she’s related to the man who once blocked foreign hackers from trying to bring down NASA rocket launches and its satellites that are orbiting the earth.
I was a complete stranger to Davis, but the thought of sharing a bloodline with the man who manages top-secret scientific information for the government made me incredibly proud. He helps some 3,000 scientist, researchers and engineers use Information Technology to further NASA’s mission to uncover mankind’s three greatest questions: How did we begin? What is our future? Are we alone?”
But that’s not it. My cell phone research revealed that Davis is as much a warrior, not just computer geek. He was a combat veteran in the Marine Corps as well as a former CIA agent who conducted covert operations in some of the most dangerous countries in the world. He even did a tour of duty at the U.S. Department of Education!
There’s a genius in every Black family, though we might not know it, I thought.
After the movie (which is a must-see), I just had to meet this Jerry Davis. My grandfather was his great-grandmother’s younger brother, my mom explained. When her family migrated north from Mississippi, she had spent part of her childhood living with Jerry’s father and grandmother in South Bend, Indiana.
Davis is only seven years older than me, but he moved to Southern California to live with his mother when I was 3.
At the risk of looking like a stalker, I emailed him, sent a Facebook friend request, and pinged him on LinkedIn in rapid succession. “I am not some crazy person. I’m your cousin,” I wrote, then regretted introducing myself as not crazy, which in writing tends to reflect the opposite.
I asked him if he would Skype with my middle school students after they attended a field trip to see “Hidden Figures;” they could ask him questions about his career at NASA.
He wrote back, “No need to call me ‘Mr. Davis,’ we family :)!”
Jerry Davis with Marilyn’s daughter.
Instead of Skyping, he flew to Chicago and visited four inner-city schools, inspiring more than 200 African-American and Latino students to consider STEM careers and various technical industries like NASA.
But Jerry didn’t just boast about his success. He told students about being temporarily homeless when he was 12; his mother and stepfather had lost their home, forcing the family to live in a trailer and tent in a public park.
He also told about how he had to work and attend a two-year college before he could enroll in a four-year college. And when he applied to a training program to become an astronaut—his childhood dream—he was denied.
I was struck by a question a girl at Butler College Prep asked him: “Sometimes I get so tired that I feel like giving up and not even trying anymore. How did you keep from giving up when life got hard?”
He explained that his mother homeschooled him and his brother when they were homeless. And when he finally returned to public school in the 10th grade, he was one to two grade levels ahead of everyone else. (Because public schools are failing to educate and cultivate the strengths of Black children at alarming rates, African-American families have become the fasting growing group of homeschoolers.)
“Something inside of me refused to quit no matter how hard things got,” he explained. “You have to have that mindset too. Hold on to your dreams—no matter what.”
Jerry Davis speaking to science students at Gary Comer College Prep in Chicago.
I watched with pride as my cousin put his brilliance as a successful, highly-educated Black man on full display. He left each student with an official NASA emblem to place on their favorite folder or book.
I stuck mine on my file cabinet at work. When I look at it I see greatness, not just in NASA, but in my cousin Jerry. He joins the ranks of other relatives like my aunt Dr. Joyce Newman Giger, professor emerita at UCLA School of Nursing and former president of the American University of Health Sciences, and my uncle (he’s really my cousin, but I call him uncle because he’s an elder) Dr. Lonnie Edwards, distinguished college professor and longtime school district administrator in Mississippi and Georgia.
The evils of slavery may have stripped African Americans of much of our ancestral history, but tools like Ancestry.com and even Facebook are helping us connect the dots to the heroic “hidden figures” in our bloodlines.
Cousin Jerry, Aunt Joyce, and Uncle Lonnie and others have taught me that genius runs red in my veins. Now my 11-year-old daughter knows.
Just imagine the impact if every Black child in America knew that he/she had a cousin, auntie, or uncle like that. One word: revolution.