Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, Harper Collins Publishers, 2016; 346 pages
If you haven’t seen the movie “Hidden Figures,” I strongly recommend it. The book does not have the glamour of Hollywood, but it tells a wonderful story long unseen. Reading this reminds me that wonderful things are happening all around us that no one is documenting and few will every know.
Hidden Figures is the second book in my triad of unseen and little remembered histories. I finished The Rise of the Rocket Girls about the women at JPL a couple months ago. Seventh in my row of books to read next is The Glass Universe about the computers of Harvard Observatory.
Set against the background of the segregationist South, the story of these African-American women and their contributions to America’s space program is inspiring. While dealing with a society that would rather close schools than let black and white children sit in the same classroom, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson, and many other smart women broke the racial barriers at Langley Research Center in Virginia.
Shetterly emphasizes the bonds these women had. Hired as “computers” they would become mathematicians and finally engineers and supervisors. They nurtured one another, adopting new comers as flowers in a garden that needed tending.
The tensions of the Cold War swept over the traditions of racial segregation, making Langley a spring of change and reform. In one passage describing the many ways black women were entering new fields, Shetterly reminds us that their parents and grandparents were those “who supported America’s great economic pyramid even as it pinned them in place with its weight.”
Every other year, readers in my hometown select a book to read, a meaningful way to bring our community together. This year Hidden Figures is that book. Many local events have been organized around this project.
In September we heard from Katherine Moore, the daughter of Katherine G. Johnson, one of the main characters in the book. Mrs. Moore shared what her mother has related about the experience, (Her mother, by the way, still lives her in Greensboro.) Mrs. Moore shared what her mother said about all the recent fame “I was just doing my job.”
The author, Margot Lee Shetterly was interviewed on stage at Guilford
College a couple weeks ago. She confessed that her original plan was for this research to be her dissertation. Next Tuesday (October 17) there will be a book discussion at the Central Library.
I enjoyed the book as a kind of endnote to the movie. Hidden Figures provides all sorts of background information that wouldn’t fit on screen. Thank-you, Margot Lee Shetterly, for writing this book.