Hidden Figures

I heard about the movie Hidden Figures a few years ago but never saw it. Recently, the inscrutable algorithms at Instagram started dropping clips from the movie in my feed. I’ve no idea why but I’m grateful. They got me interested in reading the book. 

Cover of Hidden Figures showing a black hand writing equations on a chalkboard.

Hidden Figures:
The American Dream and the Untold Story of the
Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

By Margot Lee Shetterly
William Morrow, New York, 2016

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race tells the stories of the lives and careers of hundreds of black women mathematicians who worked as “computers” for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its predecessor the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at its Langley research lab in Hampton, Virginia.

Starting in the middle of World War II, before the development of electronic computers, these women were hired to perform mathematical calculations by hand – to compute in other words – to support research and development in ballistics, airplane aerodynamics, rocket launch windows and other areas.

Initially, they worked together as a pool of computers in a separate, segregated building in Langley’s West Area. They earned the trust and respect of the white NASA engineers and over the years many of them transferred directly into NASA’s specialized engineering and project teams.

They were all well-educated black women holding degrees in mathematics and science, but they had limited opportunities until they started working at Langley.

“In 1940 just 2 percent of black women earned college degrees, and 60 percent of those women became teachers, mostly in public elementary and high schools. Exactly zero percent of those 1940 college graduates became engineers. And yet, in an era when just 10 percent of white women and not even a full third of white men had earned college degrees, the West Computers had found jobs and each other in the ‘single best and biggest aeronautical research complex in the world.’” [p. 40]

Working as a computer at Langley, where they earned double what they would have earned as teachers, opened a path to a middle-class life for these talented black women.

Author Margot Lee Shetterly does a great job detailing the careers of the West Computers, and also how they helped and supported each other, both professionally and socially, across multiple generations. Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia and knew many of the women she writes about in the book. She’s also an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow. Her father worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton as a climate scientist.

Hidden Figures gives special focus to three women, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson, and how they contributed to American efforts in World War II, the Cold War, supersonic flight, the space race against Russia, the Apollo moon landings and beyond.

Still the path for all the black women at Langley wasn’t easy. They faced racism and sexism at NASA; segregated bathrooms, segregated lunch tables in the cafeterias, and limited opportunities for career advancement.

Even so, NASA was relatively progressive. The State of Virginia most definitely was not. Here’s one example Shetterly describes in detail.

Mary Jackson’s manager encouraged her to enroll in Langley’s engineer training program which would lead to a significant promotion for her. But first she needed to complete an extension course in differential equations at nearby Hampton High School – a whites-only school in Virginia’s segregated education system. Shetterly spells out the absurd situation:

“If Mary had applied for a job as janitor, the doors to the school would swing wide open. As a professional engineer-in-training with a plan to occupy the building for the nefarious purpose of advancing her education, she needed to petition the city of Hampton for ‘special permission’ to attend classes in the whites-only school.” [p. 144]

When she was finally granted permission to enter the school in the spring of 1956, Jackson discovered it was a “dilapidated, musty old building.” Hampton High was clearly no great prize for white students either. Sadly, it wasn’t unique.

“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. [p. 145]

This story of the self-harm caused by racism is explored in much greater depth in Heather McGhee’s excellent book The Sum of Us, which I highly recommend.

Shetterly interweaves the stories of these black women with the history of the times they lived in. She shows how progress in the long struggle for racial equality in America has often depended on internal pressure from organizers and activists like A. Philip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and also on external pressure, particularly the pressure of war.

The urgent demand for labor to support America’s effort in World War II helped break down some of the country’s racist structures and laws. In 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 desegregating the US defense industry and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FERC). In 1943, Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9346 broadened FERC’s jurisdiction to include all US federal agencies, not just those involved in defense. And Executive Order 9981, issued by President Truman in 1948, desegregated the US armed forces.

Shetterly also recounts something I’ve read in other books; how racism became a handicap for the United States during the Cold War, harming its credibility as it sought to recruit allies in Asia and Africa against the USSR. This international competition contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Hidden Figures celebrates the talent, perseverance and accomplishments of the black women mathematicians who worked for NASA at Langley. It also lays bare the cruelty, banality and braindead stupidity of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

Thanks for reading.

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2 Responses to Hidden Figures

  1. I saw the movie a few years ago and really was inspired by it. Maybe I knew there was a book??? I’m glad that stories such as these have been documented. I wish my father were still alive to ask him more about his career with NASA in Alabama. He started in 1961, and saw many cultural changes through the years.

    Liked by 1 person

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