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That’s my only quibble with the book: I wanted more of their voices. But it’s almost as if Shetterly wants us to know that she’s done all her homework. “Hidden Figures” often gets sidetracked in context—about NACA, the city of Hampton, how America’s race problem is viewed overseas.
Most of us are already familiar with the racial and political backdrop of the 1950s and ’60s, or at least familiar enough to put these women’s momentous achievements in context. The shifts from their personal story as pioneers in the American workplace to more general historical discussions felt jarring.
When I got to those passages, I found myself reading hurriedly to get back to the narrative about the women themselves. Through their knowledge, expertise, and grit, they created a professional oasis in Langley, which was no small feat in a Virginia that vigorously enforced segregation. (That’s not to say that Langley completely promoted equality. To the contrary. Jim Crow laws remained in force. The women weren’t allowed to use the restroom in their own building; they had to go a half-mile away to the one designated for them. And the women had to sit in the “Colored” section of the dining room.)
While the book does tell about the enormous loads these women bore, as mathematicians, mothers, community leaders, and wives, Shetterly makes a point of noting their stoicism. They always maintained that they were just doing their jobs.
Of the “West Computers” Shetterly focuses on only Christine Darden and Katherine Johnson are still alive. Johnson, at age 97, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015.
It’s lucky for us Shetterly recognized the unique context she grew up in, and through that lens was able to bring to life this important story. Too often, history is told solely through white faces. “Hidden Figures” introduces us to the black women who literally did the math to help get man on the moon, and provides an important example that could inspire another generation of women and people of color to follow in their footsteps.