Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is a book that I'm of two minds about. On the one hand, it exposes an important and overlooked element of American history. I think, even today, the image of a "black woman scientist" feels foreign, despite the undoubtedly many black women working today (and in the past) in scientific fields. Hidden Figures effectively brings to light the work of a variety of black women in one particular arena: NASA (and its predecessor, NACA). The women worked largely as "computers," a term that reads oddly to us today, but that originally referred simply to "people who do computations." Though today we imagine any math job as high-level, the position was entry-level at the time, below that of the male engineers and scientists. Nevertheless, many of the women rose to become engineers and join engineering teams, making significant contributions to our nation's history.

On the other hand, Shetterly's detailed attention to chronicling this overlooked aspect of history means the book itself often reads like a history book. She eliminates much of the personal narrative style you tend to see in especially engrossing nonfiction (an issue the movie seems to go the exact opposite direction in, for better or for worse). Undoubtedly this makes her book more accurate, but it also makes it more of a slog, the slew of names and dates and scientific terms creating confusion and glazed eyes.

But, to the history: what's surprising about the history of the black women scientists is just how little overt discrimination they faced. They faced discrimination, for sure--segregated work spaces, lunch tables, and bathrooms; unequal pay and job titles; a lack of upward mobility--and those injustices are incredibly important. However, they also were welcomed at NACA/NASA in a way they often weren't in other fields. First, the demand for employees with scientific backgrounds during WW2 and later the space race was so high that ability and experience often trumped racial prejudice. Within the organization, other employees were more concerned with output--are the numbers correct?--than who was doing the work. And despite Langley being located in heavily segregated Virginia, many of its employees were from elsewhere, including the North, where their prejudice was less strong (though obviously still present). For this reason, the book features few (or really any) of the dramatic showdowns you might imagine. Instead, the women work incredibly hard and are incredibly dedicated to their work; they earn their peers' respect and over time are siphoned off from the large computing pool to join individual engineering teams, where many go on to become engineers and computer programmers.

The dramatic showdowns tend to take place outside NACA/NASA. The black women are working alongside white co-workers, calculating the path to the moon, while outside Langley black high school students are physically barred from integrating schools. That juxtaposition had to be incredibly difficult--seeing simultaneously the possibility and the barriers.

Ultimately, Hidden Figures is a valuable contribution to scientific and American history, though not packaged in the most accessible manner.

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