Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race - Margot Lee Shetterly
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.
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Review - 4.5 Stars
What can I say about this remarkable book?
I was drawn in from the moment the author described how the story first came to her- literally through an off-handed comment from her dad as they were driving through her hometown. She was the right person at the right time and place to discover, research, and then write about the women who directly impacted NASA's space race.
Just as those women were in the right place at the right time to integrate NACA (what later became NASA) and then ascend its ranks, many going from computers to receiving the designation of mathematicians and even engineers.
I had never heard heard about the West Computers before. Nor had I thought much about how the NASA program came to be or just how much math was involved, especially before electric computers were around. And I definitely didn't have a sense about how exciting this time was. I found this book to be incredibly educational on many fronts.
Hidden Figures is part history book, part profile of several of these computers. It's in a similar vein as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Unbroken, and The Boys On The Boat. Hidden Figures covers more than 25 years between when the first black women were hired in 1943 to the successful launch of Apollo 11 in 1969 and a little of the years after.
The story of what these women accomplished is incredible in itself. I'm not mathematically gifted so reading about the calculations they were figuring out and how it was used to invent plane and then space technology boggled my mind. Katherine Johnson, who is probably the most well known of the West Computers, directly contributed to the space launch. But if anything is evident after reading this book, it's that every single employee, from the janitor to the engineer, made that accomplishment happen and it is sad that history books tell us about the astronauts and maybe the engineers but that's it. For that reason, I'm so glad to now know the names of Katherine, Dorothy, Mary, and the others.
Each of the women profiled deserve to have a book written about them alone! I do wish some of their stories had been further fleshed out. A few narrative threads petered out sooner than necessary and I was left with a couple of questions that the epilogue didn't address either. But overall, Shetterly did a great job bringing these amazing women to life and showing how they helped one another, whether they were there from the beginning or brought in along the way.
What elevates this book even further is its consideration of racism and sexism. Just because NACA was at the forefront of integration does not mean its black workers were treated fairly. There were separate bathrooms and a separate table in the cafeteria. They could work alongside white colleagues but they were still kept in their "place." Each person responded to this differently. And as the times changed, so too did NACA and this was gratifying to see. It also highlighted the disparity with the state of Virginia, which greatly resisted desegregation.
This was also at a time when men didn't believe women's delicate brains could handle tricky mathematics so all women, black and white, started out as computers, even if they had college degrees in math, even though men with the same experience were hired as mathematicians. Women had to prove themselves over and over again and some eventually got to pursue higher degrees and were promoted, though this often depended on which engineer they worked for and how progressive they were.
All of this makes the West Computers' accomplishments that much more impressive. Shetterly effectively used the backdrop of WWII and the Civil Rights Movement within this narrative.
All people deserve to be treated fairly and to have the same rights. What might have happened had NACA delayed integration? Would we still have sent men to the moon? Maybe eventually but Apollo 11's success depended directly on the decision to hire black women to be computers.
The decision to do the right thing shouldn't be based on what we can get out of it. We should speak out against racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and ableism because it's the right thing to do. Because we are better together. Because we have so much to learn from one another.
It's a lesson we need to keep in mind these days.
"It's a story of hope, that even among some of our country's harshest realities- legalized segregation, racial discrimination- there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.
The greatest encouragement along the way has come from black women...For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we've believed to be true, but that we don't always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America." p. 248
I'm so glad Shetterly wrote this book and I'm grateful to the women who were her inspiration.
Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Disclosure: I was provided an ARC from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. Affiliate links included in this post.