Even before the publication of Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the rights to the film version of the book—starring Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe—had been sold. This comes as no surprise: The story of these brilliant African-American female “human computers” who were instrumental in calculating the math necessary to propel rockets into space is fascinating. The only surprise is that this story has not been told before.
Novelist Toni Morrison says, “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Enter Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, Va., the site where this mathematical research was done—and who also knew first-hand many of the black women who had been employed to do these mathematical calculations.
“The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history,” writes Shetterly.
Simply put, this book is the story she needed to write.
“As a child, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did,” writes Shetterly.
This was her normal. There was Mrs. Land, a NASA mathematician who taught Sunday school every Sunday morning. There was Katherine Johnson, who worked on computing the trajectory for John Glenn’s space flight. There was Dorothy Vaughan, who wrote the textbook on algebraic methods for the mechanical calculating machines used throughout the department.
And these women are just the beginning.
“I can put names to almost 50 black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980, and my intuition is that 20 more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research,” writes Shetterly.
But Shetterly is careful to note that what seemed normal to her did not come easily to this previous generation. Her father, growing up during segregation, had a passion for engineering but was told to become a physical education teacher instead.
“In those days,” writes Shetterly, “college-educated African Americans with book smarts and common sense put their chips on teaching jobs or sought work at the post office.”
Shetterly’s father’s love of engineering—“he built his first rocket in junior high metal shop class”—would not let him give up his dream. Still, it was not easy: “As late as 1970, just 1 percent of all American engineers were black—a number that doubled to a whopping 2 percent by 1984,” writes Shetterly. “Still, the federal government was the most reliable employer of African Americans in the sciences and technology: In 1984, 8.4 percent of NASA’s engineers were black.”
Hidden Figures shines a much-needed light on the contributions of black women in science and technology that have been vastly overlooked. In prose that is engaging and compelling, Shetterly refutes the commonly held stereotype that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are the province of men, specifically white men. Black women have been doing this work for ages. Before desktop computers, black women were the computing machines, using their vast intelligence to determine the orbital trajectories of space flight and accomplish other leading discoveries in aerodynamics and engineering.
“Even as a professional in an integrated world, I have been the only black woman in enough drawing rooms and boardrooms to have an inkling of the chutzpah it took for an African-American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the Moon,” Shetterly writes.
It is this empathy with her subjects—her ability to put herself in their shoes—that brings the narrative to life. Steeped in history and thorough research, Shetterly also crafts richly drawn portrayals of these black women who were mathematicians, engineers and scientists.
In vivid, specific detail, Shetterly paints the personal and professional lives of these black women who were vital to America’s scientific advancement. We see their brilliance in their work; we see the ever-present institutional racism; we see the racist microaggressions from white colleagues; we see the inevitable “Colored Only” signs on drinking fountains and bathrooms in their workplace Langley. And yet these women were responsible for some of the greatest scientific advancements of the age.
This is a book that should be required reading in schools—both as a history of science and technology and an inspiration for young black women to succeed in STEM fields. This is history that needs to be told; this is history that is still an ever-present reality for women of color working in STEM fields.
By celebrating these black female “human computers,” we give credit to the work of black women that has, like the achievements of black women in so many other fields, historically been ignored. In Shetterly’s clear, vibrant prose, we have a compelling, thoroughly researched narrative that is in a class of its own. A groundbreaking, deeply inspiring read.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.