By Heather Howard / Japan News Staff WriterHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
By Margot Lee Shetterly
HarperCollins, 349 pp
The most satisfying histories are often the most frustrating as well — satisfying because we learn about people and events completely new to us, frustrating because why, we think, why didn’t we know about them before?
The latter thought will surely occur again and again to readers of “Hidden Figures,” Margot Lee Shetterly’s account of the black female mathematicians who helped America win the space race against the Soviet Union. These are truly remarkable figures, to borrow the title’s double meaning, women who should have been household names for decades.
They’re getting their recognition now, thankfully, in a variety of forms, including this book and the critically acclaimed Hollywood movie adapted from it. The film’s Japan release is scheduled for Sept. 29.
Shetterly’s account begins during World War II, when the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia started recruiting black women to fill the voracious demand for “computers,” a term that referred to people at the time instead of machines. The laboratory tested and improved the design of America’s warplanes, and the computers processed the numerical information produced by its research.
In 1958, the laboratory and the federal agency that ran it, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, gave way to the Langley Research Center and its newly formed agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Here, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and a host of other black women would be critical to the United States’ efforts to send astronauts into space and bring them back safely.
“Hidden Figures” weaves a fascinating account of their lives and accomplishments, guiding readers through both their mathematical achievements and the racial and sexual discrimination they faced and fought in daily life. Their victories were often ones of attrition — the trailer for the film seems to promise more dramatic confrontations than actually occurred — but they are no less powerful for that.
Early in the book, for example, computer Miriam Mann wages a silent fight against a “COLORED COMPUTERS” sign on a cafeteria table at the lab during World War II, stuffing it in her purse every time she sees it, only for another to appear after a few days or more. It’s no trivial matter — Mann’s husband warns her she could well be fired over it.
She refuses to give in, however, and eventually the sign disappears forever: “In the Battle of the West Area Cafeteria, the unseen hand had been forced to concede victory to its ... relentless adversary.”
Day after day, year after year, the women of Langley soldiered on, providing undeniable proof of their skills and literally keeping more publicly heralded heroes alive. Read this book. They deserve to have the whole world know who they are.
Where to read
Next to a computer, where you can watch a video of a 98-year-old Katherine Johnson receiving a standing ovation at the Academy Awards in February this year.