Hidden Figures Reactions is a series of short essays written by faculty and students responding to Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures-–this year’s book choice for the Freshmen Reading Engagement Experience.
When reading Hidden Figures last spring, I quickly began having difficulty keeping track of the women in the book. Which one learned to code? Wait, who was it that became an NACA engineer? Which one helped with the Apollo trajectory calculations? And was that the same one who authored all those reports? While part of the difficulty might have been that I was listening to the audiobook, the book also doesn’t make it easy to distinguish these women from one another. However, the book isn’t poorly organized (though the thought crossed my mind when I got frustrated). In fact, when I read the epilogue, I realized my confusion about who was who actually meant that the book worked.
In the epilogue, Shetterly writes: “For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity” (250). By highlighting the work of so many professional black women that we get them confused, Shetterly is figuratively yelling: “Look how many there were!” They can’t be made into superheroes, though they were heroic, because they actually weren’t scarce. In fact, the epilogue also lists additional women that Shetterly didn’t have space to include . . . even more women to keep track of!
Let’s take a moment to reflect a bit more on Shetterly’s quote and how it relates to history. The process of creating history (for textbooks), involves creating a connection among events and people that helps us make sense of past events. In the process of doing this, some people or events become more visible than others. They play a bigger role in the story. The commonly told history of the Civil Rights Movement is no exception. There are main characters that have gained a superhero status – Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali are probably four of the more recognizable names. But how many of us have heard of the equally influential figures of Mamie Till, Bayard Rustin, James L. Farmer Jr., and Dorothy Height? If you don’t recognize these names, you are not alone. However, their lack of familiarity suggests something about how we tell the history of the Civil Rights Movement – that only a few superheroic figures were necessary to fight segregation. But, in fact, the heroes of the movement weren’t scarce. They are too numerous to keep straight.
There is nothing inherently wrong with highlighting some events and people to help us make sense of the past, but it does become a problem if we take the iconic figures of the Civil Rights movement and de-contextualize them. This changes the narrative. Rather than millions of people working against segregation in their daily lives, being willing to lose their jobs, be beaten up, have their children beaten up, and, in extreme cases, be killed, the narrative changes to incorrectly suggest that just a few big events (the “I Have a Dream” speech, Rosa Parks not sitting on the bus, and the assassination of MLK and Malcolm X) were needed to change history. Not recognizing the context makes it too easy to ignore the hard, everyday work that many people were doing across the country to dismantle the legacy of slavery.
With the storylines that move among Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine, the reader of Hidden Figures isn’t allowed to make only one of them a “superhero” with “mythic status.” Instead, all of them worked for equal rights at NACA. Rather than having only one moment of impact, their daily lives undermined the racist narrative. Rather than a compelling speech in front of the Lincoln Monument you have a woman who quietly, but deliberately, doesn’t use the bathroom assigned to her. Or another who calmly and without fanfare removes the “colored computer” sign from their cafeteria table every time it reappears. Nothing flashy, nothing sudden, nothing earth-shattering. It is these regular, deliberate, and daily acts that demonstrate the character of these “extraordinary ordinary women” (251).
Hidden Figures sheds light on the important work of these women. But after reading Hidden Figures I can’t help but ask, how many other stories are out there which I haven’t heard? Who else was doing amazing things that aren’t part of the (hi)story I know?
Before I end, just a word about the movie. It is a well-crafted film and great fun to watch. But the movie, at least in some moments, undermines the thesis of the book. While the book demonstrates the everydayness of these women and how, despite being extraordinary, their days were typically filled with ordinary minutia, the very genre of film compresses things. So you end up with scenes that try to make these women superheroes (and serve to continue the same binary that Shetterly is trying to dismantle). Rather than Johnson quietly using the “whites only” bathrooms, you have Kevin Costner taking a sledge hammer to the “colored only” bathroom sign. This scene is one of the most powerful in the film, but what works in a Hollywood movie wouldn’t necessarily have worked in life. And, quite frankly, Johnson didn’t feel the need to get permission from a white, male supervisor to pee in a restroom near where she worked.
So as you read the book, and find it difficult to keep track of all the women, it is a good reminder that there were actually so many women (and men, though Hidden Figures doesn’t focus on them) on the ground doing the quotidian work of Civil Rights in their daily lives about whom we don’t know. And while Shetterly’s book brings to light a few of the Hidden Figures in American history, in doing so she makes us realize there are far more that remain hidden to us for now. It is also a good reminder that history isn’t something for which only big, important people are responsible. Instead, everyone who strives to be “extraordinary ordinary” contributes to it (251). Thank goodness for that.
* Note: the title of this piece comes directly from a quote in the book, Hidden Figures. 247