Out of the Darkness: Hidden Figures & Extraordinary Stories Like Them Are Waiting for Us

we all win by exploring them…

There are so many powerful untold American stories, stories left to tell.

Many moons ago when I was actually younger, it was hard not to believe that white men in weird wigs were the only folks playing any sort of meaningful role in the shaping of America. I’m not meaning to be crass or disrespectful. Just take a minute and recall historical textbooks, imagery in museums, etc that you may have grown up with, and still dominate today. It’s all distinguished looking white men “making things happen.”

Looking for women in old historical portraits offers a Where’s Waldo type exercise. Native communities, slavery and later, civil rights are communicated and explored, but it was certainly lacking in detail, and good storytelling until recently. Even much of the “English” literature given to us to study in class, offered a dominant archetype from mainly one perspective. I used to think that wasn’t a big deal because that’s really all I knew. But eventually, life and experience helped me realize that every American, every human on this earth in fact, has a unique perspective. And if that’s the case, if we want to learn more about them, as I do — we’ve been sorely missing out friends!

“If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.

That’s why I’m so grateful for technology and the internet that is being used for the light side too. There are so many enriching untold stories and creative ways of telling them being shared. Previously, they might have been ignored or not understood by those with their own world views who manage traditional media and publishing, and who are often more focused on the bottom line.

That’s why what’s left of this post is dedicated to sharing why I think everyone should boost the signal on books, articles and movies like Hidden Figures. “The Phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s Greatest Achievements in Space.” (from the back flap of the book).

The movie featuring the awesomeness of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and others provide a wonderful, empowering window into the story of the real women who lived it.

However, the book for which the movie is based by Margot Lee Shetterly, offers insightful, extraordinary stories and rich detail that are worthy of a deeper dive. What’s really groundbreaking about what Shetterly did was the immense effort and research that was involved in unearthing these stories. Records and evidence of these true accounts weren’t easily and immediately accessible relative to their white male engineers and counterparts. So she had to scour archives, obituaries, employee newsletters and even telephone directories to uncover that women computers (=basically mathematicians) working for what became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were in the thousands, and the women of color working in this capacity were at least in the hundreds. (You can read more about the true story of this effort here.) These first “black computers”, as they called them, joined in the 1940s and were critical to what we achieved in the Space Race. It only took us how long to bring them to the light? Thank you Margot Lee!

In complete honesty, this well-written book was not exactly beach reading for me, especially if you want to remember all the details and stories. To maximize the experience, I would recommend diving in with an open mind and gently taking in the words, details, stories like a beautiful painting. If you focus more on all of it and less on wanting to sound smart for remembering a key historical fact, as we were trained to do, some powerful insights will unfold before you.

Here are some of mine:

  • We often look at events in history in isolation. That doesn’t allow you to take in the bigger picture. Hidden Figures overlays and threads the larger global turmoil of that time period, and the push towards the new frontier of space odyssey (which I imagine was even more mind-blowing at that time), with the painful, ugly struggle for equality in Virginia and in America.
  • The whole, “Women naturally aren’t good at math and science,” statements and narrative can officially and gleefully be chucked out the window. That is, if you haven’t done that already.
  • The power and poise of these incredible women facing discrimination on so many levels, yet who went on to play a critical role in the shaping of our history is truly awe-inspiring. Their stories (and there are many of them) can motivate and empower all of us, regardless of what we look like, as we face challenges that seem insurmountable.

So check out Hidden Figures if you haven’t already. More importantly, when you have a choice, consider exploring an untold, hidden story of any type, or being open to the possibility that more of those exist then we may have been taught. These days I’m learning by unlearning and discovery… and it’s never too late.

Finally, at the cost of making this post longer than it needs to be, I leave you with some light from the book that I will be taking with me.

Whatever personal insecurities Katherine Goble [later Katherine Johnson] might have had about being a woman working with men, or about being one of the few blacks in a white workplace, she managed to cast them aside when she came to work in the morning. The racism stuff, the woman stuff: she managed to tuck all that way in a place far from her core, where it would not damage her steely confidence. As far as Katherine was concerned-as far as she decided-once they got to the office, ‘they were all the same.’ She was going to assume that the smart fellas who sat across the desk, with whom she shared a telephone line and the occasional lunchtime game of bridge, felt the same. She only needed to break through their blind spots to make her case…
“Why can’t I go to the editorial meetings?” Katherine Goble asked again, undeterred by the initial demurral. She always kept up the questioning until she received a satisfactory answer. Her requests were gentle but persistent, like the trickle of water that eventually forces its way through rock. The greatest adventure in the history of humankind was happening two desks away, and it would be a betrayal of her own self-confidence and of the judgement of everyone who had helped her to reach this point not to go the final distance. She asked early, she asked often, and she asked penetrating questions about the work. She asked with the highest respect for the natures of the brainy fellas she worked with, and the she asked knowing that she was the right person for a task that needed the finest minds.”

In 1958, Katherine finally made it into the editorial meetings of a division soon to be named the Aerospace Mechanics Division, of the soon to be NASA. That was just one of the many hurdles she gracefully leapt over professional and personally.

In 2015 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States — for her contributions.

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