25 April 2017
I haven’t yet seen the blockbuster movie Hidden Figures, but I’ve heard great things about it. This post is about the book it’s based on, also called Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. It chronicles the work of numerous African-American women at NASA and its predecessor organization, NACA, through the middle of the last century. The book is a robust documentation of these women’s childhoods, educations, motivations, and lives. It chronicles their mastery of calculation and engineering, and their dedication to important work on behalf of the United States of America. It is also a story of the changing face of Hampton, Virginia, through time. Shetterly is a Hampton native, and she taps into both paper primary sources (artifacts such as employment records and newsletters, photographs, etc.) and her own personal interviews to learn what life and work were like for black women doing intense mathematical work at high security clearance in the development of supersonic aircraft and rockets that would leave the Earth. It is not a story that is wears persecution on its sleeve; rather it is a celebration of what these women accomplished, despite the discriminatory practices of the society they dwelt in. From the wind tunnel to the lunchroom, Hidden Figures is an affirmation and an important record of a group of professionals who did a meticulous job making sure that heroes like Chuck Yaeger and John Glenn were able to achieve what they did and return home in one piece. For too long, these mathematicians, “computers,” and aeronautical engineers haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. Their contributions were critical, and this books pays them the tribute they are due.