Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

In Outliers, one of Malcolm Gladwell’s points is that no achievement is truly individual in nature. We are always standing on the shoulders of timing, geography, the work of the the generations before us, the privileges granted us by our parents, our communities. Our talent and hard work may be (mostly) our own, but they are also scaffolded into history by the work of those around us. Exceptionalism doesn’t emerge out of a vaccuum.

“This is the dawn of a life, a promise held forth. We who have been fortunate enough to guide that genius and help mold it, even for a little while, will look on with interest during the coming years.” (Hidden Figures)

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A similar statement that I love, by Stephen Jay Gould: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

“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.” (Hidden Figures)

If exceptional achievement – or any achievement – is due even at least partially to individual opportunity, then the responsibility and duty of those who achieve is to work so that those opportunities are more widespread. The responsibility of the free is to work to free all – from discrimination, bias, poverty – every factor that prevents every individual human being from living with dignity and autonomy and fullness.

“[Mary Jackson] earned her engineering title through hard work, talent, and drive, but the opportunity to fight for it was made possible by the work of the people who had come before her. […] Each one had cracked the hole in the wall a little wider, allowing the next talent to come through. And now that Mary had walked through, she was going to open the wall as wide as possible for the people coming behind her.” (Hidden Figures)

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Courtesy of NASA and Essence 

So a book like Hidden Figures was always going to appeal to me. It’s the nature of history to forget all but the most exceptional, blurring the details of all the smaller, teeth-gritting achievements and achievers that make the exceptional possible, and the determination of Margot Lee Shetterly to give these forgotten women “the grand, sweeping narrative they deserved,” “not told as a separate history, but as a part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic,” is stunning in the work that had to be done, the confidence that holds the narrative together. The book knows, it knows that this story is incredible because it is the story of exceptional individuals doing exceptional things, backed by a community that was always under attack by white America. The women in this book – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Christine Mann – they worked towards, amongst other things, putting a man in space for the sheer joy of achieving. It was a point of pride that when they did, those achievements uplifted their communities as well.

“Achievement through hard work, social progress through science, possibility through belief…when Levi reached out and took hold of the first-place trophy, Mary witnessed, in one proud and emotional moment, the embodiment of so much that she held dear. Of course, Mary knew that her son was a ringer; the two of them had been building to win. Brain busters’ kids were supposed to come out on top in a race like this, even if the brain buster was a woman, or black, or both. Being part of a Black First was a powerful symbol, she knew just as well as anyone, and she embraced her son’s achievement with delight. But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.” (Hidden Figures)

Something I loved about this book is that it doesn’t make tragedies of the compromises we all make to live. It asks of Katherine Goble/Johnson, “Did she imagine what her talent might look like if it were pushed to the limit?” but it’s also clear that the choice to prioritize her family, early on, was one that brought Johnson great joy.

Hidden Figures also notes that exceptional though these women were, what they were working on as NASA tried to put a man in space was a job in which “the collective effort [was] so much greater than the sum of the individual parts that it began to feel like a separate being”. The joy of the individual lay in the certainty that [she] “had given her best to her part of the grand puzzle.” I loved the selflessness of that, the selflessness that characterizes all great collaboration and endeavour – the commitment to what needs to be done greater than individual ego. I also love this line on Katherine Johnson: “She is generous in her appreciation of other people’s talents in the way of someone who is in full command of her own gifts.” (goalz)

One of the great things about reading non-fiction is that even if it’s not very well written, the story itself is sometimes good enough to make it worth the read. Happily, Hidden Figures is written in a way that does justice to the story – it’s very sciencey in parts, but that’s necessary so the reader understands the magnitude of what the women were attempting to do. And the sciencey bits are broken down as well as possible into laymen’s terms without oversimplifying the complex. It jumps around from woman to woman, time period to time period, but this is all mostly tied up in the end. Most of all, I loved that it brought to light those moments, those people who just touched the glass ceiling, who didn’t make it through but who made it possible for the next person to smash it to pieces.

“Dorothy Vaughan’s time as a supervisor back in the 1930s was relatively brief, but during those years she had midwifed many careers. Her name never appeared on a single research report, but she had contributed, directly or indirectly, to scores of them.” (Hidden Figures)

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