Title: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Summary: Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as ‘Human Computers’, calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts, these ‘coloured computers’ used pencil and paper to write the equations that would launch rockets and astronauts into space. Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of mankind’s greatest adventure with the intimate stories of five courageous women whose work forever changed the world.
Published only months prior to its theatrical film release, Hidden Figures is pretty much what its subtitle implies: a heretofore unexplored look at the numerous black female mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA during the Space Race and beyond. I may have been spoiled from watching the movie first, but the book ends up falling flat, stretched too thin in Margot Lee Shetterly’s attempt to reference twenty years worth of history in under 300 pages. The film has a much better structure, so just knowing that a coherent story featuring three protagonists who only briefly intersect is possible makes Lee Shetterly’s narrative jumbled in comparison. There’s simply too much information and too many players at work to try and remember all of it. (And Lee Shetterly does try to reference all of it.)
I may also be judging Hidden Figures too critically. For example, Lee Shetterly writes in the the book’s epilogue:
That even Katherine Johnson’s remarkable achievements can’t quite match some of the myths that have grown up around her is a sign of the strength of the vacuum caused by the long absence of African Americans from mainstream history. For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on 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. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.
Maybe this book doesn’t live up to my expectations, though, because there has been nothing like it. Could Lee Shetterly have expanded her narrative in some places rather than in others? Yes—but in providing a macro focus, she allows her protagonists to become more multi-faceted; they weren’t just but also. I mean, there were numerous threads Lee Shetterly could have tugged on to satisfy my desire for a more nuanced social critique as it related to gender roles and skin color. She also could have whittled down her protagonists to the three highlighted in the film, or maybe even two or just one. (But, then again, would I have even read that book? Picked up a biography of a women I didn’t recognize?)
Part of the problem I had with Hidden Figures is that there was too much information—but this isn’t a problem Lee Shetterly should have to fix alone. The mere existence of the book is a testament to the fact that different stories need to be told by diverse authors. A different author’s take on Lee Shetterly’s subject would have been a different reading experience, but it probably wouldn’t have had the same pathos or narrative urgency. In her hands, this story becomes her story, and in telling her story, she makes us care about something no one seemed to care about before.
So here’s to more of those stories. Thanks, Margot, for being the First. (Hopefully you won’t stay the Only.)