Margot Lee Shetterley’s new book, “Hidden Figures,” tells the story of the African-American female mathematicians employed by NASA and their contributions to the space race, despite the rampant discrimination of the time.
by Margot Lee Shetterly
Morrow, 348 pp., $27.99
Excited film buffs are calling the true story of the African-American women NASA employed as mathematicians and engineers in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s “unbelievable,” and its telling “long overdue” as they share the newly released “Hidden Figures” movie trailer with others online.
That movie, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe and Kevin Costner among others, is due out in January 2017, but those eager to learn more right away can read the book on which it’s based. “Hidden Figures” author Margot Lee Shetterly, herself the daughter of a black NASA engineer, has written a detailed account of the women who broke through race and gender barriers to become key factors in the U.S. space program’s success.
Beginning with their recruitment during World War II due to a shortage of manpower (think black Rosie the Riveters armed with hand-cranked printing calculators), Shetterly describes how these brilliant, stubborn women made America great. Their patriotism was fervent, though not unquestioning — as the author notes, “colored” and “Negro” community newspapers called for victory over segregationists at home as well as the Axis Powers abroad.
The discrimination fought by these pioneers of science was all too real. NASA’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, was located in Langley, Va., and Virginia was no friend to integration. African-American “computers” (as the women were known before the advent of computing machines) worked in a separate building, ate lunch at a separate cafeteria table and were restricted to the use of separate bathrooms.
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With the passage of time and the shift from World War II’s emphasis on air power to the Cold War’s Space Race, discrimination became less an official code complete with signs and more a set of assumptions. Most important to the heroines of “Hidden Figures” were assumptions about who could ask the right questions concerning aeronautic efficiencies and potential flightpaths, and who was best suited to translate those questions into mathematical equations others would solve. For all of NACA’s history and much of NASA’S, the answer, reflected in job titles and pay rates, was white men.
Shetterly’s meticulous account of these unsung challengers to the racist, sexist status quo draws on hours of personal interviews, reams of professional newsletters, cases of books, scads of essays and articles, and page upon page of online resources. Unfortunately, at times she seems unable to meld her material into a smoothly flowing storyline. Ending one WWII-period chapter with a cliffhanger-like statement about Dorothy Vaughan’s determination to make the most of the six-month stint for which NACA hired her, the author opens the next with three-plus pages covering topics ranging from the existence of the famous black Tuskegee airmen to Southern anti-Semitism to the espionage convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Not for several more chapters is Vaughan’s official transition to the organization’s permanent staff described.
“Hidden Figures,” then, is not the flawlessly grand inspirational tale promoters of women and African Americans in the tech industry have been longing for. That’s probably Hollywood’s version. But the “Hidden Figures” movie, no doubt beautifully filmed and packed with drama, would not exist without this book. And the depth and detail that are the book’s strength make it an effective, fact-based rudder with which would-be scientists and their allies can stabilize their flights of fancy. This hardworking, earnest book is the perfect foil for the glamour still to come.