Written by Margot Lee Shetterly
Audiobook read by Robin Miles
Published by William Morrow, HarperCollins on September 6th 2016
Genres: Nonfiction, History, African American Studies, Space Science
Source: public library via Overdrive
The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.
Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.
HIDDEN FIGURES: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
- What’s it about? The subject of Hidden Figures is covered pretty thoroughly by its subtitle. During World War II, the demand for a domestic workforce to power the war effort opened new opportunities for women. These included the jobs filled by the “human computers” at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. They were nearly all women, and almost half of those women were Black. Most left jobs as schoolteachers to join the emerging aerospace industry and put their math and science degrees to work.
The Langley lab became part of NASA as America plunged into the “space race.” Many of the “computers” moved into new roles as engineers and mathematicians, working to solve the practical physics problems of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Meanwhile, as Southern Black women during a pivotal time in the struggle for civil rights, they confronted another set of practical problems outside the workplace.
- Why did I read it? Hidden Figures is narrative nonfiction that addresses 20th-century history, feminism, culture, and the space program. This book hits so many of my sweet spots that resistance was futile.
HIDDEN FIGURES: Opinions, in Bullet Points
- What worked for me? Margot Lee Shetterly has latched on to a story that needs and deserves to be told.Hidden Figures draws attention to an exceptional group of women. It emphasizes their part in the most significant scientific and engineering achievements of the 20th century, and it highlights the individual contributions of women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson. It’s not all about, or just about, what they did, though. The environment in which these women lived and worked–Virginia during the 1950s and ’60s, still segregated and struggling with “Jim Crow”–shaped and challenged them at least as much as the work itself, That context is important in how effectively Shetterly portrays them as people, not just scientists.
The audiobook version of Hidden Figures is read by Robin Miles. I listened to her earlier this year narrating Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland. I found some interesting overlap between that book and Hidden Figures–both focus on the educated Black middle class in the mid-20th century–but I think I liked Miles’ work better here..
- What didn’t I like? Most of what bothered me about Hidden Figures is unchangeable historical fact. Therefore, it’s not worth mentioning in a discussion of the book itself.
- Recommended? Definitely! Hidden Figures tells a fascinating and eye-opening story. Margot Lee Shetterly is continuing that story with her work on The Human Computer Project,. Hollywood will take a crack at it in early 2017, when the movie adaptation of Hidden Figures comes to theaters.
“Mrs. Land worked as a computer out at Langley,” my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of First Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia.
…As a callow eighteen-year-old leaving for college, I’d seen my hometown as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away could never attenuate the city’s hold on my identity, and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me.
That day after church, we spent a long time catching up with the formidable Mrs. Land, who had been one of my favorite Sunday-school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired NASA mathematician, still lived on her own well into her nineties and never missed a Sunday at church. We said our goodbyes to her and clambered into the minivan, off to a family brunch. “A lot of the women around here, Black and White, worked as computers,” my father said, glancing at Aran in the rearview mirror but addressing us both. “Kathryn Peddrew, Ophelia Taylor, Sue Wilder,” he said, ticking off a few more names. “And Kathering Johnson, who calculated the launch wndows for the first astronauts.”