Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

June 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hiddenHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

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This was a deal-of-the-day on Audible around the time the movie came out, and I couldn’t resist it. Like almost every book I buy, it lingered in my “To Be Read” (Listened?) pile, but a long commute pushed it to the top of the list. I enjoyed the movie, so I expected to like the book, as well.

What fascinates me most of all about the book is how little of it actually focuses on the space race (it doesn’t come up until chapter 16, and the book is only 24 chapters long). The central characters of Shetterly’s biography had worked in Langley for almost twenty years before the launch of Sputnik, and the author tells us how their intelligence, persistence, and dedication brought them to be the key figures of this story. The movie shifts some things around, placing some of the achievements from their earlier days at NACA so they’ll occur during the space race.

It turns out the movie took a lot of liberties with the book, which I guess is to be expected, but when a movie purports to present history, it bothers me a lot more. Dorothy’s promotion came over ten years before depicted in the the movie; Mary’s request to attend the whites-only high school was granted without a court order, or any other apparent fuss; there was a colored bathroom at Langley, but the rules weren’t enforced; Katherine gained access to the meetings through her own persistence, and it was because she was a woman, not a black woman, that she was excluded to begin with. The NACA was more progressive, thanks in part to President Truman’s executive order to desegregate the federal government, issued in 1948. That’s not to say they were free from racist comments, but the way Shetterly tells it, those came from outside Langley, not in it, because those in the organization were focused on work, and winning wars, and representing the country. Race seemed irrelevant when put it contrast to all that.

To me, this makes for a more interesting story. The women gained respect and a place at the organization not because a white savior had to step in to make it happen, but because their own determination and skills proved they were more than their sex or their race. Why the movie chose to ignore that angle of the story mystifies me.

As for the book, I appreciated learning the more authentic story of the main characters, and seeing the details of how far they rose through the organization. We don’t get as vivid a look at the three women as the movie presented, but we learn more about the social issues of the time, and see their story more in context with what they overcame in their professional growth. It’s well researched, and presented well, even if the characters don’t leap off the page.

I would recommend this book to history buffs, especially those interested in the Civil Rights movement or World War II. I definitely recommend it to those who enjoyed the movie, since it gives a larger, more cohesive picture of the lives of the women and the organization they represented. Plus, the book gives the NACA the recognition it deserves for being at the forefront of desegregation, and not the then-backward place the movie makes it out to be.

Started: April 25, 2018
Finished: May 3, 2018

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