Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Hidden Figures is much like The Martian. The movie is really great, but so is the book although somewhat different. In the case of The Martian that’s because there’s simply more story and a lot more science. The print version of Hidden Figures has no fiction in it at all, instead expanding on the beginner’s history lesson of the movie to explore race and sexual history during one of many peculiar era’s in this country’s past, as well as the rivalry for technological supremacy from the second world war to the moment in the space race when our noses crept past the Russian noses.
Author Margot Lee Shetterly explains in a long forward that the Langley area is multi-generationally scientific, and that, “growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.” Shetterly became a writer, but knowing Katherine Goble encouraged her to take on the challenge of telling this long and involved history of African-American women breaking into what the rest of us thought was an impenetrable white male bastion. Her book is easier to read than the standard (BORING) American historian-written tome, which I appreciated very much, and it’s very well annotated for us history geeks.
The movie focused mostly on Katherine Goble, who did math with the white boys, with Dorothy Vaughan’s story of early computing cage matches having a comical co-starring role. I expect this was partly because Goble’s time and place was the more photogenic early NASA years. The book doesn’t focus so strongly on any one woman, but Dorothy gets a better rendition in print.
The end of the West Area Computing section was a bittersweet moment for Dorothy Vaughan. It had taken her eight years to reach the seat at the front of the office. For seven years after that she ruled the most unlikely of realms: a room full of black female mathematicians, doing research at the world’s most prestigious aeronautical laboratory. Her stewardship of the section had supported the careers of women like Katherine Goble, who would ultimately receive her country’s highest civilian honor for her contributions to the space program. The standards upheld by the women of West Computing set a floor for the possibilities of a new generation of girls with a passion for math and hopes for a career beyond teaching. Just as the original NACA-ites would forever hold on to their identities as members of that venerable organization, the black women would always feel an allegiance to West Area Computing, and to the woman who led it to its final day, Dorothy Vaughan.
If you read the book after seeing the film, you’ll recognize the bits and pieces of story that Hollywood plucked from the pages and turned into grand cinema. For instance, work on science did wear down the strict and dangerous racial divide in Virginia, but there was no single incident like the Kevin Costner bathroom moment. That was fun, but very much abbreviated. There was also no hero walk as in the movie, but I wouldn’t have missed that for anything.
Hidden Figures is not your book if you’re looking for a quick visit with your favorite characters from the movie. On the other hand you will learn the much deeper and richer story of how hard it was for people of color only seventy years ago, and how there are always heroes willing to bravely work past the dangers, and others willing to look past their privilege to move the country forward.
- Margot Lee Shetterly – Official Website
- Hidden Figures on Shetterly’s Website
- The Human Computer Project – Tells the stories of the women who worked in NASA and NACA to help with the space program.
CFR: In Addition: I am glad to honor those who worked without a voice and were forced behind the scenes. Their contribution was magnificent. I am humbled.