Date: January 17, 2017

Hidden Figures : The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures : The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee ShetterlyHidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Published by William Morrow on September 6, 2016
Genres: African American, Nonfiction
Pages: 368
Source: Borrowed: ebook
Goodreads
five-stars

Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or 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 by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.

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 scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

Wow. Just wow. I saw this movie two weeks ago and was blown away by it.  Reading the book just gave me even more details about the African American women who came out as human computers (I had no idea that was where the word computers came from, they computed so were seen as computers) and helped shaped the United States space program.

Shetterly has historian disease (yeah I use to suffer from this as well, historians unite!) so the flow was off a few times. And there are details sprinkled in sometimes that I honestly didn’t think were adding anything to what central point I think she was trying to get across. That said, I was blown away by the time I got to the end of this book. I am embarrassed that I had no clue about any of these women (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan) that Shetterly follows in “Hidden Figures”.

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Shetterly does a great job in her prologue in setting up the town of Hampton, Virginia, where she grew up as a kid. Can you imagine a town full of African American scientists, teachers, doctors, mathematicians? I honestly was astonished reading about how Shetterly grew up. It sounds like paradise to me. This introduction is a great set-up to what caused Shetterly to find out more about Katherine Johnson, one of the central figures in “Hidden Figures.” From there Shetterly goes back to the U.S. during World War II where many agencies were looking for anyone that had any mathematician skills to apply.  The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) needed people and due to a lot of legislation that was being passed at the time, it was a good time for many African Americans to apply since they could be assured more money than what they would receive teaching.

Shetterly then moves between the years of NACA eventually becoming NASA, the space race with the Russians, and the African American women who were there for it all.

This book primarily focuses on Dorothy Vaughan and jumps back and forth between her being the central figure and adding in details about Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. I honestly would have loved to read one book for each of these women. Shetterly does a great job of showing the growing Civil Rights issues that were going on that seemed to not affect NASA personnel much. If you could do your job that is all anyone cared about. There were still little things like colored tables to eat at in the cafeteria, separate bathrooms, etc. but I loved how most of the women Shetterly mentions ignored it or just blatantly took down signs. There were also issues with some of these women having to take a step down in order to go further once they were all at the end of their promotion opportunities they could have at certain jobs. Do not get me started talking about the GS-schedule. I can be here all day.

The writing at times had me sitting up and saying amen.

“As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.

“But before 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 Education 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.”

“Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal.
Newly independent countries around the world, eager for alliances that would support their emerging identities and set them on their path to long-term prosperity, were confronted with a version of the same question black Americans had asked during World War II. Why would a black or brown nation stake its future on America’s model of democracy when within its own borders the United States enforced discrimination and savagery against people who looked just like them?”

“She trained the girls in her Girl Scout troop to believe that they could be anything, and she went to lengths to prevent negative stereotypes of their race from shaping their internal views of themselves and other Negroes. It was difficult enough to rise above the silent reminders of Colored signs on the bathroom doors and cafeteria tables. But to be confronted with the prejudice so blatantly, there in that temple to intellectual excellence and rational thought, by something so mundane, so ridiculous, so universal as having to go to the bathroom…In the moment when the white women laughed at her, Mary had been demoted from professional mathematician to a second-class human being, reminded that she was a black girl whose piss wasn’t good enough for the white pot.”

As I said earlier, the flow was not that great. I think that Shetterly had a tough time deciding what to include and what to take out. I can see how she tried to make some of the pieces fit so you can see how each of these women were important to the space race and how they worked together. Also Shetterly includes details about how African American men in the military at the time were still treated horribly by white Americans who saw them in uniform. Reading this right before Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend definitely made me appreciate all of these men and women who went first in order to make it easier for those in my generation. We are not there yet, not by a long shot, but when I read about what went on back in the 1940s-1970s I don’t know if I could have been that brave or strong to deal with it.

The setting of Hampton, Virginia during this time sounds great. It really does sound like the nerdiest place alive and I loved it.

The Virginia Air and Space Center, the official visitors center for both Langley Air Force Base and NASA Langley Research Center.

For me, this book was deeply personal. I honestly didn’t even think I could be anything more than a wife and mother. I was raised to believe that was the best job out there. College was something that the white kids I went to school with aspired to. Just because I was one of the smartest kids in school did not figure in at all to it. My parents flat out did not have the money to send me to college. My older brother luckily got an athletic scholarship to go to college, and even he did not graduate on time due to him not watching to make sure he met all of his requirements to graduate. However, lucky for me, my parents via financial aid and scholarships that my church told my mother about made sure I got into school. And luckily for me when I was about to graduate from college, I was given the opportunity to interview for graduate school. Due to my GRE schools and undergraduate grades and other activities I managed to go to graduate school for free. Even now at the age of 36 I realize that even though I loved to read, was seen as one of the smartest kids in school, my life could have so easily went another way if I didn’t have someone stepping up along the way to make sure that I got the same opportunity that many people take for granted.

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Thank you to all three of these women and other women that the book mentions for doing the impossible.

This is definitely going to become one of my permanent books on my bookshelf at home.

five-stars

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday12/17/16: Ten Underrated/Hidden Gem Books I've Read In The Past Year Or So by Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme that was created by The Broke and the Bookish. Today's theme is Ten Underrated/Hidden Gem Books I've Read In The Past Year Or So (up to you if you want it to be those published in the past year or so or just ANY underrated book you've read recently).

Top Ten Tuesday

Ten Underrated/Hidden Gem Books I’ve Read In The Past Year Or So (up to you if you want it to be those published in the past year or so or just ANY underrated book you’ve read recently).

So I have a lot of books that I read the past year that I thought were fantastic. I am always so sad though if everyone else doesn’t have a clue about the books that I fell in love with.

So here are my top ten underrated/hidden gems books that I read in 2016:

  1.  Strangers in Death by J.D. Robb. This is one of my favorite “In Death” books. It has a great callback to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and the little clues that are dropped throughout give readers a great look at how the murder was carried out.
  2. Heartless by Marissa Meyer. I know a lot of people were not feeling this one. I get it. We all love the Lunar Chronicles, but I thought this one did a great job of giving us a YA perspective of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I am so happy that so many Booklikers read this short story during Halloween Book Bingo. The discussions about this book went on for a few weeks and I love it when a story can touch people in so many different ways.
  4. I Almost Forgot About You by Terry McMillan. I loved, loved, loved this one. I realized after the fact that not a lot of my African American friends even knew that McMillan had a book come out last year. This one touched me in a variety of ways. Since I didn’t really like the sequel to “Waiting to Exhale” I was so happy that this one resonated with me.
  5. Nuts by Alice Clayton. Sometime a girl needs a hot and sexy romance. That is all.
  6.  The Bone Collector by Jeffrey Deaver. I was so happy to read the first book in the Lincoln Rhyme series. This one had everything a history nerd and amateur criminologist (via fiction books) could love.
  7. Dawn by Octavia E. Butler. I know a lot of people don’t like these books because the topic of consent gets turned upside so many times it may make you uncomfortable as you read. I still found this and the other two books in this series to be great reads.
  8. In The County We Love by Diane Guerrero. This gives such a great perspective on the children of illegal immigrants who have come to the United States to make a life. You follow Guerrero’s family’s journey and the decisions they make along the way in order to try to stay together.
  9. Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee. This book took a historical event (San Francisco earthquake and fire) and had it take place in the city’s Chinatown. I loved everything about this book and hope for a sequel due to a lot of outstanding questions I had regarding what happens to the main character.
  10. The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. I have told every friend of mine that I have about this awesome book. I loved it. Such a great read from beginning to end. The next book in this series (which apparently is not a sequel sequel) is coming out this year. I can’t wait.

 

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