07-21-18 Patricia Sargeant

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hidden Figures

Hi everyone! I am YA author B A Binns , writer of contemporary and realistic fiction for teens. My tagline tells you what I am about - Stories of Real Boys Growing Into Real Men - and the people who love them. 

I saw the movie Hidden Figures this past weekend, and it affected me so much I had to rush out and get the book it is based on. There are not a lot of movies that can do that to me, and I am also making it the subject of this months post. I'll warn you now I include some spoilers from the movie below.  If you want to wait and see the movie first before you read the post, I don't mind.  (Big spoiler - John Glenn does land safely!)

I attended college in the 1960's, majoring in Biochemistry. That makes me old enough to remember the space race and John Glenn’s historic orbit around the Earth. It should also make me remember the team of skilled mathematicians that made both the flight, and his successful return to Earth, possible. But I never knew about the Colored Computers, as they were called. They were a group of black women skilled in higher math who worked for the space agency in the days when IBM computing machines were still clunky, difficult to program, and not very trustworthy. I sat before a TV set and watched John Glenn’s flight without knowing that women who looked like were ever involved in that or other space mission.

The story of those Colored Computers is documented in the book,  Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, and now in the movie of the same name.
Female mathematicians were hired as "human computers" because men viewed calculating the numbers, including launch and landings for astronauts, as secretarial work and didn't want the job. There was also concern that men might think close was good enough and women would be more exacting. The Colored Computers were held to a higher standard than their white counterparts and had to have college degrees to get hired. The real Katherine Johnson, who is the focal point of the movie, was a math prodigy who graduated high school at fourteen, and college at 18, an obtained an advanced degree at 20. She then went on to teach mathematics. She taught, did research, married, raised three kids, and was hired by the space agency where her name is still spoken of in reverent terms,  even though her story has only become known outside the agency recently.

Since this is the Romancing the Genres blog, I will tell you this movie includes a romance.  Ace mathematician Katherine Johnson meets her future second husband early on. In true romance tradition, he bumbles their initial “cute meet,” expressing astonishment that a woman could be involved in as mentally taxing as higher mathematics. Katherine gives him the wise advice to quit before he digs his hole even deeper.

Fortunately, her future husband doesn’t give up wooing her, and in the end gets down on his knee and proposes in front of her three daughters and the mother-in-law that comes as part of the package deal. They were together over fifty years, a true HEA.
The three actresses involved, Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson), Janelle MonĂ¡e (Mary Jackson), and  Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan) have said they first thought the script was historical fiction. When she realized this was about real people, Taraji P. Henson immediately insisted on meeting with Katherine Johnson, the only one of the three still living.

Many parts of this book and movie will move every woman who ever confronted a glass ceiling. In fact, one scene resonates with every woman who ever lived. We have all had that experience where we needed a bathroom, NOW. Guys have it easy. The line to their bathroom is minuscule (if there even is a line) and they can casually saunter over to a bush or the corner of a building if need be. We get in line and hope we can hold out until we make it to the front. So we all feel for Katherine as she races a half mile in high heels to get to the only building in the compound with a bathroom she is allowed to use.  Pharrell Williams music, Runnin', is he soundtrack to her long trek while struggling to keep herself under control until she arrives.

In addition to Katherine Johnson, two other Colored Computers have prominent roles in the movie. Mary Jackson, who takes on the courts and her husband to become the first African American female engineer for the space agency, and Dorothy Vaughan who went from being de facto supervisor of the Colored Computers to the first African American to become a head of personnel after first teaching herself FORTRAN and then the IBM manuals ( a real feat, I used to code in FORTRAN and got headaches from those monstrosities called manuals). She sees the coming of mainframe computers as the end of the need for her coworkers, so she teaches her skills to the other Colored Computers, enabling them all to assume new jobs when programmers were needed.

You can watch the movie trailer below:  


As I watched this movie I saw many parallels with my own life. When Mary Jackson walked into an engineering classroom filled with only white men and took her seat in the front row, I remembered having the exact same experience. As a Biochemistry major in the 1960's and 70's, I found myself in several higher math classes where I too was both the only black and the only woman in the room. Like Mary, I sat in the front row, knowing that was a place where I could ignore the eyes behind me.

This movie shows us how hard these unsung heroes worked, and how much they cared about their work and their country. The overall message of this story, if we put our differences aside we can all move forward. Everyone who sees this movie can respond to the sight of people gathering around TV screens in store windows to watch John Glenn’s landing. Octavia Spencer is in one group of people watching all that she worked for come to fruition. That racially mixed group of people, men and women, young and old, stand united, all praying for the same thing, his safe return.

In the end, Katherine Johnson's talent and sheer genius couldn't be ignored, not even by coworkers who blanch at the idea of her pouring a cup of coffee from the same coffee pot they use. In 2015, Katherine, the “computer” that John Glenn trusted to verify the numbers produced by the IBM mainframe before he set off on his historic flight, was given the nations highest civilian honor, the National Medal of Freedom. At ninety-eight, she remains modest, saying, she was simply doing her job to get the USA into space. 

In the film she walks into a new job in office filled with white men in short sleeved shirts, while she was forced to adhere to a dress code that included high heels, high necklines and no jewelry except pearls (which she did not get paid enough to own). In order to gain the information she needed to do her job she battles her way into meetings where she was the first African American and the first woman to be allowed entry. Again, this resonated with me, having gone through the exact same things when I was promoted to manager at my job in the 1990's. I learned to walk into meetings where I was the only one of my kind and sit up front, just as I did in my math classes.

If you haven't seen this movie yet, go for it. And if you want more about Katherine Johnson who still lives and is an advocate for girls in STEM, you can watch an in-depth interview below done in 2011, where she tells her own story of her mathematical ability and how she came to work at NASA.


Barb said...

What an absolutely wonderful blog post. It is inspirational and thank you for writing about something I would not have otherwise had access to.

Madelle Morgan said...

I'm an engineer and faced discrimination myself when applying for jobs in my field, construction, even in the 80s, more than 10 years after Katherine worked on the 1969 Apollo flight. It was quite a shock to be considered equal to men in class, and inferior to men with the same training out of it.

After graduating, I got hired by going where other junior engineers (male and female) were in short supply, namely the far north. I can still remember a contractor calling me "Blondie", and a construction worker saying "I would never work for a woman." I shot back, "I would never hire you!"

For black women, the hurdles were/are even higher to be accepted for their expertise and intelligence. Katherine Johnson's story is of a brilliant woman who overcame a sky-high patriarchal deck stacked against her and all women at the time. Her genius could not be ignored. Her strength to persevere in face of discrimination is inspirational. I wish I'd known about Katherine back when I was a new graduate. It would have put my own struggles in perspective.

Maeve Greyson said...

Wonderful post and a movie that I need to take my granddaughter to because young women NEED such role models.

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Awesome post--will definitely see the movie! And thanks for hanging in there and helping to break that barrier for others.

Sarah Raplee said...

I've been dying to see this movie! Doesn't it make you wonder how many other stories like it are out there waiting to be "discovered?" Like yours, B.A., and yours, Madelle.

Wonderful post, B.A.!

Judith Ashley said...

I've seen the trailers and have been tempted to see this movie (I'm not a movie person even on t.v.). I'm so glad true stories like this one are being told. Thank you for shining a brighter light on this story, B.A.

Most of us of a certain age have tales of discrimination, of being the only or one of a few women in male dominated professions. Mine was law enforcement. I'm so grateful things are different now. At least on the surface.