I’ve watched Jesse Williams’ powerful speech from the BET awards this past June several times. Among other things, he points out the hypocrisy in the way white Americans consume black culture without actually respecting the people who create it. This happens in pop culture—everything from Elvis to trend pieces about cornrows that make it sound like white women invented them—but it’s not just there. As much as we want to pretend science is immune to cultural biases, it’s not. Reading Hidden Figures with Williams’ words in the back of my mind made me see this book as another example of how our culture gladly uses black people’s work without giving them the credit they deserve, in this case reinforcing our society’s stereotypes about what a scientist looks like.
Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, which came out in September, describes the previously unsung work of the black women mathematicians and engineers who worked at the Langley Research Center in Virginia and helped NASA put people into orbit and on the moon. It’s a reminder that John Glenn and Neil Armstrong didn’t make it into space and safely back home again by themselves. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating their bravery and achievements, but Hidden Figures makes it clear that there were more brave people working behind the scenes, too.
Hidden Figures has also been made into a movie starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. It was originally advertised as coming out early next year, but I’ve seen rumors that it will open in some theaters on Christmas this year, qualifying it for the Oscars. The movie will doubtless take liberties with the history—it’s a drama, not a documentary—but it looks like an inspiring, entertaining film, and I can hardly wait to see it.
Although the book and film focus on a just few of the black women who worked for NASA and its predecessor NACA, they were not alone. In her research, Shetterly found that dozens of women worked as “computers,” mathematicians, or engineers at Langley. There just isn’t room to tell all of their stories, but the women Shetterly chooses to feature are inspiring representatives of this group of scientists.
Katherine Johnson, one of the women featured in the book and film, is still living. She was awarded the Presidental medal of freedom in 2015 and is probably the best known of NASA’s black women mathematicians. It’s kind of astonishing to think she was born before the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote, and she grew up going to segregated schools. When she got to Langley, the restrooms were still segregated, though the book notes that she refused to comply with that particular rule. (One of the trailers would have you believe that a white man tore down that sign; the book does not indicate anything of the sort.)
Hidden Figures is set in the South in the 40s-60s, when the Civil Rights movement was taking hold and segregation laws were gradually getting overturned. In addition to Johnson’s resistance to walking across campus to pee and the other ways the black women who worked at Langley protested segregation, the book describes the changing landscape outside of the research center as well. One of the most sobering passages is about school segregation. This scene is about the reaction Mary Jackson, another Langley mathematician, had to finally getting permission to attend engineering classes at Hampton High School, a white school.
Hampton High School was a dilapidated, musty old building.
A stunned Mary Jackson wondered: was this what she and the rest of the black children in the city had been denied all these years? This rundown, antiquated place? She had just assumed that if whites had worked so hard to deny admission to the school, it must have been an wonderland. But this? Why not combine the resources to build a beautiful school for both black and white students? Throughout the South, municipalities maintained two parallel inefficient school systems, which gave the short end of the stick to the poorest whites as well as blacks. The cruelty of racial prejudice was so often accompanied by absurdity, a tangle of arbitrary rules and distinctions that subverted the shared interests of people who had been taught to see themselves as irreconcilably different.
The commitment to segregation and white supremacy ran so deep that many white people either didn’t understand or didn’t care how much it was damaging the entire community.
One of the most refreshing things about Hidden Figures is how ordinary the women’s lives were in many ways. They cared about their families, they were active in their churches and communities. Unlike the mathematicians we usually see in movies, they were not tortured, friendless geniuses laboring in isolation. The book makes it clear that these were extraordinarily talented people, but it shows that those talents are not incompatible with having a fulfilling life outside of work.
Racism, white supremacy, and stereotypes about what kinds of people are good at math and science still keep talented people from becoming mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, and all of us lose out on their talents when that happens. Hidden Figures is an eye-opening testament to the fact that black women were with NASA from the start. We should know about their accomplishments too.