Xconomy Bookclub: “Hidden Figures” and the Brains Behind Space Flight

Xconomy Texas — 

Part of the difficulty in attracting a diverse set of people to technology jobs is a chicken-and-egg problem. Women and under-represented minorities don’t often see themselves in those positions, which makes it less likely they would pursue them.

Sometimes examples exist in plain sight, but we don’t realize the importance of them until later. That happened to author Margot Lee Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, VA, surrounded by a community of educated and professional African Americans. It was “simply the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine,” she writes in the book. “I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.”

Clearly, she realized how wrong those assumptions were, and that revelation became the book “Hidden Figures,” telling the story of the “West Computers,” a group of black women who helped build up the nation’s aeronautics industry in the years following World War II. The movie version starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer opens nationwide Thursday.

“Hidden Figures” focuses on the lives and work of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden whose brainpower helped build the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at Langley Field into the modern NASA center of today. The mathematicians started out as “human computers,” doing the research and calculations needed by the male engineers pursuing space flight and other projects.

In preparing for his 1962 launch to orbit, astronaut John Glenn wanted Johnson to double-check the electronic computer’s calculations. “If she says the numbers are good, he told them, I’m ready to go,” Shetterly quotes Glenn saying.

By the 1970s, however, technological advances made these human computers obsolete and NASA eliminated the positions.

Shetterly weaves the women’s professional and personal stories around the broader context of racial discrimination prevalent in society—and the growing movement to end those abuses. She’s done her homework, citing all manner of memos, wedding announcements, newsletters, and personal interviews to learn more about the women’s work and lives.

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.