Hidden figures: The fight for race and gender equality

A couple of days ago, I gave my wife an idea for one of her entries for her Facebook Friendship Group. I suggested that she gave the members of the group the chance to suggest what film or films had really impressed them in the last year. I thought that recommendations would be useful to other members to look up or go and see these films.

I suggested “Lion”, the film about a young Indian boy who travelled over 1000 miles in a train and finished up in a Mumbai orphanage and was later adopted by a Tasmanian couple. Suggestions from the others were Viceroys House, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences and Hidden Figures.

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The last in the list sounded interesting to me so I looked it up. It was based on the true story of young black female human “computers” who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (N.A.C.A.). It was based upon the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly.

In the book Shetterly documents the lives of a little known but significant contribution that these women made to the American space project. One woman in particular played a significant part in working out the key mathematical information needed to get the first successful manned rocket flight up and back safely and contributed to  Apollo 11’s  first landing by man on the Moon and the successful rescue of the Apollo 13 flight. Her name is Katherine Johnson and her story in itself is inspiring.

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Now the fact that Johnson was born in the American South in 1918 meant a number of things. Her early precocity in being able to read and showing signs of brilliance in mathematics was not going to get her the chance to get any form of education beyond 8th grade. College for a black woman was almost unknown.

Her father took the unusual step of backing his children (she had 3 siblings) and drove 120 miles to find a black college that his daughter could continue her education in. Even after she graduated there were few opportunities for gifted female mathematicians in the segregated and racist American South.

She was fortunate in getting a position at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton Virginia. She was one of a large number of female “computers”, who in the days before electronic computers, would spend all day and every day number crunching huge amounts of data. The black “computers” were housed in what was called the “West Building” which had inferior facilities (including toilets) and they were not allowed to go into the main (whites only) building where the main research was going on in support of missile and space technology.

Katherine proved herself to be more than just a number cruncher. She had a superb mathematical mind and was able to assist NACA and later N.A.S.A. (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) as it became, to do significant calculations about flightpaths and re-entry points that made potentially disastrous flights into the space triumphs that we witnessed in the 1960’s.

In the film, which, like all Hollywood versions of true stories, tends to put glamour and gloss over everyday struggles, the problems that Katherine and her colleagues faced in overcoming prejudice because they were black and female is well depicted. They were often excluded from attending meetings, they were not allowed to see so-called “confidential” information and they had to face the day-to-day problems of acceptance by their colleagues.

My interest in this story is based upon my amazement that in the face of prejudice on two fronts (gender and race) these women managed to continue their studies and prove to succeeding generations that women can be good mathematicians and that black people are no different from any other race in their ability to make a major contribution to this world.

The sadness of it all is that there are still so many young black and Latino children in deprived areas of America who face problems in getting a proper education and whose ability to make the contribution that their talents fit them for is cut off. What other contributions would we have seen in our world if the barriers and walls of prejudice were not erected? Katherine is not a one-off she is an example of what could be.

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