Book Review: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a phenomenal story. Whether you learn about the black female computers who solidified the U.S.'s space program during the height of the civil rights area from the book or the movie, you really should learn about them. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson are true American Heroines.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
There is absolutely no mystery about it, Hidden Figures is my favorite movie of all time. I saw it twice in theaters, bought it as soon as it was released on DVD, and watch it probably once a month. As a black female who holds degrees in Mathematical Sciences, Computer Engineering, and Computer Science, it's no wonder the movie was so powerful to me.

Last May, I had the privilege of attending a workshop for women in computing and Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book for which the movie is based (also called Hidden Figures), was one of the speakers. We were given the opportunity to meet her, relay our gratitude for such and impactful book, and of course, get autographs. My plan was to read the book on the plane ride back home. Instead, I fell asleep from exhaustion and didn't get a chance to revisit the book until recently. I'm glad I finally got around to reading the book, because it's just as awesome as the movie!

The book is way more informative than the movie. We don't just learn about the three main women, but about several black women and even a few white women. Each of the women in the book contributed to the success of the other women and are praised for tasks such as being the first first female to author a paper within NASA. In the book, we get to see these accomplishments laid out in more detail and understand just how much these ladies achieved. In addition, the book allows us to see the women as more than just scientists, showing Mary Jackson as a devoted Girl Scout troop leader and Katherine G. Johnson as a dedicated member of her sorority. The book also incorporates major events in US history, such as the Brown v. Board of Education ruling to the lives of the women working at NASA. After watching the movie, you feel inspired and you know about 3 trailblazers, but after reading the book you'll know about so much more.

A major difference between the book (which is based on fact, by the way) and the movie is the powerful scene in which Katherine confronts her boss about the unfairness of having to walk such a distance (I think it was a mile) to use the "colored" bathroom. In the movie, this is followed by the white supervisor dismantling the signs the segregated the bathrooms and delivering the line "here at NASA, we all pee the same color." It's a powerful scene and speaks volumes to the experiences and injustices these women were subjected to. Which is why I still love the scene even though it never happened...

In fact, Katherine never followed the rules and used the white-only bathroom from the time she arrived at NASA (then called NACA) until she retired. While I think a scene depicting this could have played out even better, with Katherine playing an active role in desegregation rather than the passive role of only speaking out when prompted, the real reason she was able to circumvent the segregated bathrooms, according to the book, was because she was fairer skinned and able to pass for white. I think brining that tidbit into the movie would have been less impactful. Don't get me wrong, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being a fair-skinned black person, but due to the history of colorism in the U.S., I don't think showing a woman who could be mistaken for white as the lead in a story about black triumph would have been nearly as inspiring to the thousands of little black girls who won't be mistaken for white. So, I'm overjoyed that Hollywood chose the "more obviously black" Taraji P. Henson to play the role of adult Katherine and Lidya Jewett to play young Katherine. Impact wise, it makes a difference. By participating in the West Computing Group, Katherine G. Johnson did not try to pass for white and was known to be black, and I think was important to keep that aspect in focus for the movie.

The other major change I found between the book and the movie was how closely the book hit home, giving it more of a bittersweet feel than the triumph I feel after watching the movie. The movie presents us with crowning achievements: Dorothy Vaughn gets her promotion, Mary Jackson becomes an engineer, and Katherine Johnson sends a man into space! The book, however, reminds me of how little things have changed for women and black women in the sciences. Full of expositions explaining their philosophies and how each woman thought, the book talks about the struggles of being a black female at NASA during the Jim Crow era, but it doesn't sound much different than the experiences I've had today. Black people, both men and women, make up less than 2% of the technical jobs in Silicon Valley.[1] It was quite depressing to read sentences about how alienated these women felt embarking on their career in the 50's, knowing I've thought the same things. How can so much have been accomplished and yet so little has changed?

Nonetheless, I feel that this should be required reading at high schools everywhere! It is deeply moving and deeply inspirational.

References

  1. Julia Carrie Wong. "Segregated Valley: the ugly truth about Google and diversity in tech". The Guardian. August 7, 2017

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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