“My investigation became more like an obsession; I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end. I was determined to prove their existence and their talent in a way that meant they would never be lost to history. As the photos and memos and equations and family stories became real people, as the women became my companions and returned to youth or returned to life, I started to want something more for them than just putting them on the record. What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved, the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, bust as part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.” –Margot Lee Shetterly, “Hidden Figures,” 2016.
When I read the prologue of this book, tears rushed down my face. At the end of the “Hidden Figures,” the movie, we all clapped inside Arclight Hollywood. It was perhaps to celebrate these African-American women of vintage 1950s and the white men who saw “fine in them,” as our own American story.
“The cruelty of racial prejudice was so often accompanied by absurdity, a tangle of arbitrary rules and distinctions that subverted the shared interests of people who had been taught to see themselves as irreconcilably different,” noted Margot Lee Shetterly in her book, “Hidden Figures.”
I still remember the heart-wrenching dialogues of “Hidden Figures,” the movie, when three African American women — an engineer, a mathematician, and a computer supervisor — worked side by side with white men, yet minimized.
“If I were white, I would have been an engineer by now.”
“You know I am not against your group.”
To which the response was, “I know you truly believe that.”Or the exchange between a mathematician and an engineer:
Katherine Johnson: How can you be possibly ogling these white men?
Mary Jackson: It’s equal rights. I have the right to see fine in every color.
Or how the finish line keeps getting changed.
Mary Jackson: Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.
In the film, the absurdity is further depicted when mathematician Katherine Johnson had to run several times a day, in her high heels, half a mile away to the colored bathroom. It affected her workplace, as she was gone 40 minutes.
In one scene, it shows her running to the bathrooms during heavy rains. Would these not take you down to your lowest of low self?
In one of the dramatic peaks of the film, a fictional male manager, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, confronts Katherine Johnson. She explains to him and the rest of her colleagues why she was gone 40 minutes at a time and what it takes for her to relieve herself.Her manager, Al Harrison responds by creating a more equal NASA, by taking down signs of separation: the sign of colored bathrooms (making it simply a bathroom) or the coffee pot marked colored (making it simply a coffee pot for all).
Of course, this is largely fictional yet it creates an impactful relief after watching the brazen wickedness, cruelty and mean hostility of the segregated workplaces.
Kathleen Johnson (played with quiet dignity by Taraji Henson) worked with no hesitation when asked to recheck the mathematical calculations for John Glenn’s safe trajectory for his spaceship’s return to earth. With full assurance, she heeded her mentor, Al Harrison, to think man is already on the moon, rather than just journeying in space to reach it.
Imagine if you were in her shoes, would your math skills be up to par such that even with the public actively monitoring the space flight manned by John Glenn, your computed trajectories will be so precise as to enable his safe return into the earth, defying the pull of the earth’s gravity and the friction caused by air particles that come its way?
Remember that gravity pulls that spaceship into the earth naturally, but the speed of return to earth has to be tempered, as space shuttles reach extra hot temperatures of about 3000 degrees Fahrenheit, Jane McGrath of Science/Spacecraft continued.
Picture yourself working in this space station, but arbitrarily ties down your left hand. In effect, you are deemed disabled, but you are not. You are simply preempted from applying all your talents.
In one film scene, she was given incomplete information, yet, expected to still perform the mathematical calculations, as if she had a full set of data to work with.
Of course, she applied her smarts, and in the redacted spots, she used light to read the redacted information, and her mathematical wizardry to figure out the calculations. She pushes herself and does her research. She works long hours and does her math calculations visible to all. As good as she was, she got suspected of being a Russian spy, when obviously she is not Russian, but a full-blooded American!
Katherine Johnson rose to claim her dignity, as a respectable person, worthy of a full measure of respect. She does not stay down, nor does she victimize herself.
As I watched the film, I recalled seeing John Glenn when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama inside the White House in May 2012.
I now realize John Glenn’s historical significance, not just for being the space pilgrim in a “temperamental Atlas rocket, a ninety-five foot high, 3.5 million horsepower intercontinental ballistic missile,” as described by Shetterly, but also for “imploring the engineers to execute one more check: a review of the orbital trajectory that had been generated by the IBM 7090 computer.”
“Get the girl to check the numbers,” said the astronaut, John Glenn, “If she says the numbers are good, he told them, I’m ready to go,” wrote Shetterly.
John Glenn by that act, communicated to his male colleagues that the brainy computers can trust their computer, Katherine Johnson – that these black women can be in parity with their male mathematicians and white male scientists.
This essay highlights “Hidden Figures,” the movie, as it is inspiring not just for the women, but also for men saw it.
For example, “Kaz Czarnecki wasn’t about to leave brainpower on the table. He only learned of Mary Jackson’s double major in math and science after he made her the offer to join the Four-foot SPT group. Even so, without having reviewed her resume, something about her gave him the idea that she was both qualified and the right fit for the job. He was white, male, Catholic and a Yankee. She was a black woman from the South, a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It would have been easy for each of them to look past the other, to see the outside and assume that they could have nothing in common. But what Kaz Czarnecki intuited, and what the years would bear out, was this: Mary Jackson had the soul of an engineer,” wrote Margot Lee Shetterly.
But to get classified as an engineer, NASA required core courses in engineering and before that, a knowledge of differential equations, which she could only get by matriculating in an all-white high school. As the State of Virginia was segregated, she had to petition to get into that “white only high school.” Shetterly describes her journey as “there was never any doubt in Mary’s mind that it must be done.
Indignities, disparities, injustices, racism are actively dismantled by a number of tactics: good work performance; voicing the absurdities of segregated and hostile work practices; challenging the disparities by persuasive reasoning in the courtroom; a champion who sees the strengths in others and allowing them to proactively change the culture, but also remembering, as a good friend said, that in the “tree of life,” we are also a part of the “tree of rise.”
* * *
Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.