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BOOK REVIEW: Hidden Figures – The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

BOOK REVIEW: Hidden Figures – The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

HarperCollins
December 2016
Paperback, $31.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction/Social & Cultural History

8/10

For too long the African-American women who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, a precursor to NASA) were missing from the history books. Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, and the Oscar-nominated film of the same name are poised to redress this problem and give recognition where it’s due. The story is an important and inspirational one, exposing how these women overcame racism and sexism to play their own significant roles in the U.S. space race.

Shetterly is uniquely qualified to be writing this non-fiction story; her father worked as a research scientist at the NASA-Langley Research Centre, and she also understands what it’s like to be an African American woman working in a white collar job.

Even as a professional in an integrated world, I had 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. These women’s paths set the stage for mine; immersing myself in their stories helped me understand my own.

The account begins with an examination of the first African American women to be recruited as “computers” in Virginia during the Second World War. These roles were very different to the expected career trajectories for African American women at the time (most were employed as domestic help or, at best, school teachers.) These “computers” would perform incredible mathematical equations in order to calculate the trajectories for rockets as well as crunching other numbers that needed to be calculated in order to send astronauts safely into space. Some of the mathematics is discussed here in detail and this can make for dry reading at times, especially as it is likely to be beyond the realm of understanding for the average reader. But these moments are outweighed by the other points where these incredible women and their families are described (including their work in the sciences, and their extracurricular activities as Scout leaders, Sunday school teachers, etc.)

This book tends to focus on four key individuals: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden (the latter individual’s character does not appear in the motion picture.) The text is framed around the history of the time including the Second World War, the civil rights movement, the Cold War, the space race and women’s liberation. Shetterly is forthright as she describes how these women lived in segregation and the indignities they faced, like having to use the “colored” bathrooms and being forced to sit at a separate “colored” table in the cafeteria.

Because of the overwhelmingly white public face of the space program, the black engineers, scientists, and mathematicians who were deeply involved with the space race nevertheless lived in its shadows, even within the black community.

But these women proved they would not be beaten.

Their facilities might be separate, but as far as the West Computers were concerned, they would prove themselves equal or better, having internalized the Negro theorem of needing to be twice as good to get half as far… They warded off the negative stereotypes that haunted Negroes like shadows, using tough love to protect both the errant individual and the group from their failings.

Hidden Figures is a well-researched and detailed book that finally gives due credit to some overlooked individuals who were integral parts of the U.S. space race and putting man on the moon. The story itself contains lots of heart and is ultimately a significant one that should inspire young girls to follow in these fearless women’s footsteps and take up careers in engineering and mathematics, as the possibilities are shown here to be endless. There should be more stories like this one, featuring strong female role models and smart heroines, because they are living proof that even rocket science can be more complex than it seems.

BOOK REVIEW: Hidden Figures - The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

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