Book Review: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Paperback Release Date: December 6, 2016
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.
Hidden Figures is the story of the amazing and largely forgotten black female mathematicians, or computers, that worked for NACA (The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and when it later became NASA. There, they faced both discrimination and sexism. They worked in the West Computing office, which was far from the East Computing building where the white computers worked. There was a separate table for the black people in the cafeteria and separate bathrooms as well. Both black and white women were passed over promotions, with the jobs being given to white men with less education and less experience.
However, the biggest struggle for the women came long before they started working at NACA. Trying to get an education in Virginia, one of the most racist states in America during that time, was extremely difficult. The schools for black people were run down and most didn’t even offer advanced courses. The governor refused to comply with Brown vs. The Board of Education, going so far as to chain the doors of Virginia schools that attempted to integrate.
I wouldn’t call this book a biography of the computers. The main focus is on their work lives at NASA, there isn’t much personal information about their private lives. There was too much technical math and space information in it for me – I thought it made the book move very slowly, especially the first few chapters. However, I’m sure a lot of people will appreciate having this information included. Even if not everyone reads the book, the publicity behind it and the movie are still bringing awareness to these women’s accomplishments. That said, Hidden Figures is an important story that needs to be told and I recommend reading it.
(I received a complementary copy of this book for review.)