Book Review: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures. Margot Lee Shetterly. New York: William Morrow and Company, 2016. 368 pp.

Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia (aka “Langley”) was the place where many of the mathematical calculations that made aeronautics and, later, space flight happen.  Before there were machines by the same name, there were people called “computers”.  These individuals were often people with expansive intellects who did not, on paper, qualify for the professional positions of “mathematician” or “engineer”.  During the period coming out of World War II, as we plunged into the Cold War, and entered into the Space Race people who could do mathematical calculations with speed and precision were in high demand.  This demand created a set of quasi-professional mathematical jobs.  In the still male-dominated world of the 40s, 50s, and 60s this was a space where women could do real mathematical work professionally. Not only women but women of color.  Hidden Figures is the story of those women and their attempt to leverage their career as “computer” to achieve economic, and societal advancement.

If any of the characters in this text have earned notoriety in the public interest outside of this text, it would be Katherine Johnson.  Her story alone is remarkable.  She was born Katherine Coleman in Greenbrier County, West Virginia in 1918.  The fact that she was born in West Virginia and not Virginia is not lost on the author Shetterly.  The history of the existence of West Virginia itself is driven by the American Civil War.  In 1861, the Commonwealth of Virginia voted to secede from the United States.  The delegates from the regions in the Allegheny Mountain voted not to leave.  Ultimately in 1863, a new “free” West Virginia was admitted into the Union as a “free” state onto itself.  Virginia was not only a Confederate State, but the location of the capitol of the Confederacy.  Katherine Johnson was born to a black family that sought refuge from a world that wanted to enslave her ancestors.  Even in the “free state” of West Virginia in the early twentieth century education for black citizens was severely limited.  In her home town, Katherine did not have formal education opportunities available to her beyond the 8th grade.  Her family had to alternate arrangements for her to do secondary education in Institute, West Virginia beginning at age 13.  At age 18 she West Virginia State College, a historically black school where she graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BS in Mathematics and a BA in French.  At this point, she began working as a public school teacher in West Virginia.  Teaching was one of the few “good jobs” that was open to black women at this time, 1937.

In 1939, Katherine Coleman became one of the students who desegregated the graduate program at the University of West Virginia.  She was hand-selected to be this person, both due to her temperament and for her likelihood to succeed.  She was one of three black students to attend a graduate program at UVW that year and was the only woman.  It should be noted that, the Brown Vs. Board of Education decision would not be handed down until 1954.  However, Coleman left the graduate program after one session in order to be married to James Globe.  She put aside the formal study of mathematics until 1952.  At that time she heard from a friend of the family that National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to what we know as NASA, was hiring mathematicians, men and women, black and white to work at “Langley”.  The work would involve calculations related to guidance and navigation.  She was offered a job in 1953 and the family moved to Hampton, Virginia.  The group she joined there was called the West Computing Division and it is this group that is the primary focus of this book.

Among Johnson’s three most notable accomplishments were first, her calculation of the trajectories for Alan Shepherd’s 1961 space flight. Second, for being the mathematician whose calculations were used to support the validity of the mechanical computer’s work that guided John Glenn’s 1962 orbit around the Earth.  Finally, being the mathematician who used mechanical computers to calculate the flight path of the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon.  Later in her career, she worked on the team that handled the backup plan for the Apollo 13 mission, trajectories for Space Shuttle Missions, and ultimately what may become a human mission to Mars.  It should be noted that in the midst of this, this mother of three, lost her husband in 1956 to an inoperable brain tumor and was remarried in 1959 to Lt. Col. James Johnson.  Part of the beauty of Hidden Figures is that this text does not stop with the amazing story of Katherine Johnson.  It is about the women of the West Computing Division of which Katherine Johnson was a part.

Katherine Johnson’s supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn, is the subject of the most expansive story in Hidden Figures.  Vaughn was born Dorothy Johnson, in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri.  In her childhood the Johnson family migrated to Morgantown, West Virginia.  Dorothy went to Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Wilberforce, Ohio on a full scholarship and earned a BA in mathematics in 1929.  She started her professional career as a teacher and had four children with her husband Howard Vaughn.  She made the jump to join “Langley” in 1943.  Vaughn became the first black director of a division and was the director of West Computing during the tenure of Katherine Johnson’s work.  Vaughn is heralded by Hidden Figures as a both a capable and insightful mathematician, but also a talented leader who empowered the women in her division to have to access and tools they needed to be successful and to advance in their careers.  Vaughn appears to be both skilled in navigating difficult political climates as well as building empowering relationships.  This was a woman who could both inspire her subordinates and earn the respect of her superiors.  Vaughn was fair and demanded the same of others.

One of the notable aspects of Vaughn’s career was her sense of adaptability within a field that was rapidly changing.  Vaughn existed in NACA when Orville Wright was still heralded as an avionics pioneer and at NASA well into the space race.  When Vaughn started at NACA she was a “computer”, she climbed to manage “computers”, when computers become machines, she learned to program in FORTRAN, then she climbed the leadership ladder again to manage programmers.  Vaughn was a leader and she knew it and so did anyone who met her.

Admittedly, one of the quotes that most clearly gives a sense of Dorothy Vaughn’s unflappable character is in the epilogue of this text.  After being asked to consider being part of a lawsuit claiming that she was not paid an equal wage to white men who did the same work she responded, “they gave me every penny that they promised me.”  No one was going to get this woman to say that she didn’t understand what was going on.  This is a woman who worked hard, held high expectations, and earned every step on the ladder she took.  No one was ever going to even think of putting her in a place where she could be accused of trying to get something for nothing.

Mary Jackson was born as Mary Winston in 1921 in the very neighborhood of Hampton, Virginia where “Langley” was housed.  Where Johnson and Vaughn were purely computationally focused she was better suited to the creative work of engineering.  Jackson graduated from the historically black Hampton Institute in 1942 with a BS in mathematics and physical science.  She, like Johnson and Vaughn, turned her degree into work as a school teacher.  Jackson taught in Calvert County, Maryland.  In 1951, Jackson joined the West Computing Division at “Langley” working under Dorothy Vaughn.  When NACA dissolved into NASA on 1958 some of the “computers”were given the opportunity to take advanced courses in engineering.  Mary Jackson did this work and became NASA’s first black female engineer.

Jackson worked with the wind tunnel program at “Langley” that surrounded the quest for supersonic flight.  This was the division that worked to ensure that Chuck Yeager could make his sonic boom in 1947.  Much of this program’s work gave us the faster, quieter, more efficient military planes we have today.

Jackson, though, was not only a physical engineer, she was a social engineer.  It was a passion of hers to ensure that the black women around her were growing and advancing.  This was true of her coworkers and even true of the Girl Scout troop she was in charge of.  She fought to ensure that her little piece of Virginia would have one integrated Girl Scout council.  Jackson clearly understood that separate was not equal.  By far one of the best scenes involving Mary Jackson in this text is her collaboration with her son to build a soapbox derby racer.  This was a woman who brought her passion for engineering and her drive to empower others home.  She was a hands on leader and mother.

Though Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson were the central figures of this text, what is of critical importance here is that this is not a text that only features them.  Woven in this history are many named women who worked in and lead West Computing.  These women were the actual “computers” that made the historic milestones in American aeronautics and space flight happen.  West Computing itself becomes in this text not the setting of the story but rather a character onto itself.  West Computing is born out of a need to fly faster and smarter.  This division is the entrance of black women into professional mathematics and science.  This happens in a time and place where this seems impossible.

“Langley” is in Virginia.  It is in a county in Virginia where, when even Little Rock Central High School was forced into desegregation by the 101st Airborne, this county chose to close down all public education rather than let black students go to school with white ones for five years.  The effects of this are still felt in these parts of Virginia.  Inside the walls of “Langley” these women were valued professionals, but once the work stopped, even for lunch they were relegated to being second class citizens, at best.  Even in the “Langley” cafeteria they were forced to sit at the “colored only” table and used the “colored only” restrooms.  The book details the act of defiance of one of the members of West Computing in her removal of the “colored only” sign from their table every single time it appeared.  Ultimately, the unseen hand of institutional racism gave up and the sign stopped appearing once and for all.

This is a book of growing pains.  There is a persistent assumption, even by the most sympathetic white men, that these women do not have a drive for career advancement.  They trust their calculations, the respect their leadership, but they are reluctant to offer them titles and authorship credits.  West Computing is responsible for far more work that their membership is officially credited for.  Only when there is no way to dispute their initiative and contribution are their names finally put on papers and finally they are given professional titles of director, mathematician, and engineer.

This is a book ultimately about a decline of a black female presence in math and engineering in science and space exploration.  After the massive dedication of resources to NASA to achieve the moon landing the bubble burst.  “Reduction in Force” and “Reduction in Grade” were common events at NASA as we drift into the 1970s and 1980s.  At this point came the reality that when choices needed to be made as to who would suffer these reductions, gender and race garnered privilege.  This books final chapters depict strong black female mathematicians, and engineers being forced to accept retirement, loss of pay grade, and loss of title.  Though all of NASA: man, woman, white, and black, went through this, these reductions were especially felt by these women who worked so hard to get to where they were.  This was not the way to end their careers.  It was also difficult to see how NASA would be able to continue to be a place where the advancement of colored people would continue to be in the very nature of the work.  West Computing was a stepping stone that would no longer be available.

This is a technically difficult read.  It is historically detailed and it is scientifically and mathematically literate.  The lay reader may find it to be dense.  I would also suppose that the young reader might find it to be a bit much.  This book demands a reader who is not only interested in a good human interest story, but demands a reader who is genuinely interested in science, mathematics, aeronautics, and space exploration.  This is a text that teaches as well contextualizes.  It is amazing how it effortlessly weaves the history of the civil rights movement, with that of the space race, with that of the development of 20th century mathematical and scientific discovery.  It not only does this but puts a very human face on it.  This is the prize the reader gets for embracing this challenging text.

This text also is a challenge to read today.  This book clearly calls us to understand that black women put man on the moon.  This book, by its nature, challenges the world of the reader.  If you draw a straight line from the classrooms where these women taught through their achievements at NACA and later NASA then by all estimations we should experience the presence of black women in every aspect of American accomplishment and leadership.  Yet, this is not our experience.  The visibility of women of color in leadership and in technical spaces is decreasing.  We still see women of color’s contributions to math and science as extraordinary or unusual.  Within “Langley” these contributions were ordinary, daily, and expected.  The mere success of this book and the movie that followed is indicting of our society and it inability to see past gender and color when it comes to finding talent.  John Glenn trusted the hand done calculations of a black woman with his life more than he did a guidance computer.  Glenn didn’t care what her gender or color were.  He cared that she was skilled, timely and accurate.  If we continue to think that science done by people of color is unusual we are limiting both scientific and societal growth.

The availability of good scientific jobs not only elevated these women, but elevated entire families.  Mary Jackson instead of working two low paying jobs worked one good one and because of that she could spend her evenings building soapbox racers and organizing Girl Scout groups.  Opening up science, math, and engineering to a broader group was good both for science, math, and engineering, and good for those who were previously excluded from these endeavors.  Someday, maybe we can write a book about a new chapter in the development of science and math and this time we can not tell the tale of the workers who were hidden, but rather show that the contributions of all people regardless of race or gender were encouraged, recognized, and rewarded.  This is how we grow and become a stronger society.

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