“[B]efore a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Eduction of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female. For a group of bright and ambitious African American women, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a crack at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the center of the universe.”
Margot Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures” is the once untold story of the black women mathematicians “who helped win the space race”, a story now widely told thanks to Shetterly’s book and its adaptation into an Oscar-nominated film. In this, her first book, Shetterly was ignited by the stories of these ceiling shattering women. Over the course of the book, Shetterly brings to life both the details of these women’s contributions to NASA (then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronotics) beginning in the 1940s, as well as the underlying narratives of their ground-breaking work to gain equal treatment as women and as black Americans.
When it comes to describing the prejudices faced and the strides against racism and sexism made by these women, Shetterly is at her best. Her commentaries and indictments are eloquent and beautifully barbed.
“Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellectuals like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.”
“The vicious and easily identifiable demons that had haunted black Americans for three centuries were shape-shifting as segregation began to yield under pressure from social and legal forces. Sometimes the demons still presented themselves in the form of racism and blatant discrimination. Sometimes they took on the softer cast of ignorance or thoughtless prejudice. But these days, there was also a new culprit: the insecurity that plagued black people as they code-shifted through the unfamiliar language and customs of an integrated life.”
“The cruelty of racial prejudice was so often accompanied by absurdity, a tangle of arbitrary rules and distinctions that subverted the shared interests of people who had been taught to see themselves as irreconcilably different.”
“Women were ‘supposed’ to wait for the assignments from their supervisors, and weren’t expected to take the lead by asking questions or pushing for plum assignments. Men were engineers and women were computers; men did the analytical thinking and women did the calculations. Men gave the orders and women took notes. Unless an engineer was given a compelling reason to evaluate a woman as a peer, she remained in his blind spot, her usefulness measured against the limited task at hand, any additional talents undiscovered.”
Crisp and poetic writing, highly detailed research, and a story that is intellectually stimulating and tugs at the heart strings – these are the ingredients of a memorable and engaging book. As Shetterly herself said in her Epilogue,
“There’s something about this story that seems to resonate with people of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages, and backgrounds. It’s a story of hope, that even among some of our country’s harshest realities – legalized segregation, racial discrimination – there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.”
Unfortunately, “Hidden Figures” did not blend its ingredients into a truly successful dish. This book is mired by minutia and facts often too mundane to have ever made it on a notecard. What should have been a fascinating and engaging read was an absolute slog to get through. Brilliant nuggets of trivia and characters with engaging backstories were surrounded by sentences that were individually deftly constructed but which did not come together to create a cohesive and compelling narrative. The irrelevant details and the discontinuous narrative begged for a stronger editing eye. As it stood, I’m afraid that Shetterly was so genuinely drawn to her subject and giddy in her quest to uncover a long-hidden story, that any and all information became valuable in her eyes, fool’s gold or no (a notion supported by the fact that nearly one quarter of the book are the book’s references and bibliography, including nearly 50 pages of endnotes).
I commend Shetterly’s success in uncovering and spreading this important history that has been too long absent from our national narratives. I think that, with time and a heavier editorial presence, this author could produce some beautifully written works. I look forward to that day and suggest, in the meantime, that this is a book that can easily be left to languish on your TBR pile.