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.
Bad puns often are intentional and groan under their own weight. Or rather, hearers of bad puns groan under the weight of those puns. Too much time spent polishing a pun to improve its impact only makes it too visible.
Metaphors are like puns except, instead of serving to “entertain a reader or hearer, they serve to improve a reader’s understanding. Also, whereas the best puns are unintentional, a good metaphor even if it started unintentionally, needs to be polished to be effective.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly annoyed me because of its crossing of the boundary between pun and metaphor.
Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed reading this book because it helped me to understand a period of time in US history that was incompletely expressed in the history books that I have encountered. Shetterly’s story piqued my curiosity about the space race and the contributions of people whose names do not appear in history books. I also began to wonder about the role that Tri-State College and its wind tunnel played in this thread of history. Making me want to learn more is the mark of a good story.
However, the chapter headings annoyed me because sometimes they were puns and sometimes they were metaphors.
For example, Chapter 13 is aptly titled “Turbulence” and serves as a metaphor for the content of the chapter. To simplify the term, turbulence refers to the “bumpiness” of air (or other gas or liquid) because of variations in temperature, pressure, and motion. Likewise, the chapter focuses on the bumpiness of Katherine Goble’s life and assignment to the Maneuver Loads Branch department. The chapter begins by focusing on her permanent assignment to that department, the way she was initially treated by some of the engineers, and how she recovered from that initial “turbulence.” Later, as her work life improves, her husband dies, which creates all kinds of bumpiness in her life as she struggles to cope with the loss and to continue to live her life. The remainder of the chapter focuses on a return to normalcy—how her life changed and stabilized.
Perhaps a better title for the chapter would have been “Manuever Loads Branch.” The department, according to Shetterly, “conducted research on an airplane as it moves out of stable, steady flight or tried to return to stable, steady flight” (127). With this proposed change, once I understood this concept in the chapter, I would understand both the significance of the term and the metaphor that describes a return to and from normalcy.
In contrast, the next chapter, “Angle of Attack” is not titled well to serve as a metaphor for its action. Once again, I’m over-simplifying the concept: an angle of attack is the kind of sweet spot between maximum lift and falling out of the sky during take-off. It also refers to the angle to which a 2-D wing would need to be raised to keep the airplane on its desired flight path.
This metaphor would be perfect in chapter five, where Shetterly writes, “Negro life in America was a never-ending series of negotiation: when to fight and when to concede” (45). The negotiation between wanting to attack (lift) and concede (flying more toward level) seems like a natural connection to me. Instead, chapter fifteen focuses on the rise of computers and Dorothy Vaughan’s decision to be connected with them, at least initially. It is also a chapter about segregated education and Mary Jackson’s work at NASA in a system that valued her because of her brain but discounted her worth because of her color.
I’d like to offer an alternative title for the chapter, but I’m having difficulty seeing how it all fits together. Perhaps that incongruence of people’s lives and social rules is the point of this chapter, even though it is the point of most of the chapters. As a reader, I struggle to wrap my head around the chapter, which is what the role of the chapter title should help me do. What I got instead was an aeronautical term that didn’t quite work as a metaphor and became word play.
I want to repeat myself. Even though I have a problem with how headings are used in the novel, my complaint doesn’t keep me from enjoying this good book. It sparks my curiosity in history and culture and leaves me wanting to do more research to build off of Shetterly’s work. I want to understand how the worlds I think I know fit into these new worlds that the author has brought me into.