2022-12-04

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Impressions

Captivating, heart-breaking, and awe-inspiring are just a few of the many adjectives I could use to describe this book. The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, did a great job weaving together the lives of “the black women mathematicians who helped win the space race” to show their grit and cant-stop-me attitude mixed with the terrible injustices they had to face.

One thing I realized was that African American’s fought for “freedom” in both world wars but they weren’t offered that same freedom back home. America and the allies painted themselves as a land that loves all and recognized the injustices the Jews were facing in Germany. Yet at the same time, African Americans were still fighting for fundamental freedoms and rights back home. I had never seen that juxtaposition before.

A similar situation happened during the space race. The USSR ensured anyone who so desired could be trained as an engineer. They had waves of people learning the most advanced math, science, and physics. Meanwhile, In America, African Americans were struggling to get a decent grade school education. In 1959 in Prince Edward County, rather than integrate, segregationists defunded the entire county school system. The schools in that district remained closed for five years. “Virginia,” Shetterly writes, “a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.”

When the space race took off, Civil Rights activists thought we didn’t have any business reaching out beyond the stars if we couldn’t figure out how to live together beneath them. I see their point.

Lucky for us, Dorthy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson looked these difficulties in the face and persevered. Their work helped John Glenn orbit earth and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

Notes

  • Charles Hamilton Houston, one of the NAACP’s top lawyers, reflected on his time in the war in 1942 to the Pittsburgh Courier after he was on a train on the way home and a white man refused to sit by him and a friend. He said, “I felt damned glad I had no lost my life fighting for my country.”
  • In 1959, President Eisenhower set the plan for constructing a secret bunker deep under the Greenbrier Hotel
  • ‘This is not science fiction’ wrote President Eisenhower in a fifteen-page document called Introduction to Outer Space.
  • School board’s in white-only districts paid special “school fees” to black families to keep their children in black districts. Virginia colleges did something similar to black graduating students, paying them a “scholarship” to attend college out-of-state.

But simple luck is the random birthright of the hapless. When seasoned by the subtleties of accident, harmony, favor, wisdom, and inevitably, luck takes on the cast of serendipity. Serendipity happens when a well-trained mind looking for one thing encounters something else: the unexpected. It comes from being in a position to seize the opportunity from the happy marriage of time, place, and chance.

Star Trek wasn’t a show that just made nerds cool. It helped usher in a new era of tolerance in America. Showcasing the different races (and genders) of the universe inspired those who were usually dealt the short end of the stick.

Lieutenant Uhura, a black women and proud citizen of the United States of Africa was fourth in command aboard the spaceship Enterprise. The actor, Nichelle Nichols, tendered her resignation with the show’s creator, Gene Rodden, after the first season. Devastated, Rodden asked her to take the weekend to think it over.

That weekend just so happened to host an NAACP civil rights fundraiser and a coordinator for the event told Nichols that “one of her biggest fans” wanted to meet her. That fan was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Margot Lee Shetterly, writing in Hidden Figures, said that Nichols appreciated Dr. King’s effusive praise of the show, but let him know she had decided to leave. Before she even finished, according to Shetterly, King replied:

”You can’t leave the show…We are there because you are there.” Black people have been imagined in the future, he continued, emphasizing to the actress how important and ground-breaking a fact that was. Furthermore, he told her, he had studied the Starfleet’s command structure and believed that it mirrored that of the US Air Force, making Uhura–a black woman!–fourth in command of the ship.

”This is not a black role, this is not a female role,” he said to her. “This is a unique role that brings life to what we are marching for: equality.”

On Monday morning, Nichols marched into Rodden’s office and asked to tear up the resignation letter.

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