I feel like I’m in a pretty enviable position in life. Since I was 18-years-old, I’ve been surrounded by Black people who are actively involved in STEM fields. I have several friends with STEM PhDs, including one who writes for VSB on occasion. Two of my closest friends in life are PhDs in biomedical engineering/biology and psychometrics, I have several friends with math PhDs, a few with chemistry PhDs, I even know some physics PhDs. Not to mention the numbers of medical doctors I personally know. They’re all very brilliant, regular people and fixtures in my life.
To say that I live in a bubble of Black excellence would be an understatement, but it’s true. I wrote about this some time ago after Damon and I attended Yale’s Black Solidarity Conference in February and came across this young woman who had never seen a Black PhD before. She is in college majoring in some STEM major. It gave me the sads. I might still have those sads.
I recently wrote about my TI-83 graphing calculator and being in a pre-freshman summer program for STEM majors at Morehouse. We had a counterpart program at Spelman College (thy name we praise) called WISE, or Women In Science and Engineering, also (I believe) funded by NASA.
I just used 203 words to basically state that Black mathematicians and scientists aren’t anything new to me, regardless of gender. So when I see movies like Hidden Figures it serves to reinforce the things that I, personally, know and can attest to: Black folks been doing the damn thing like beavers for a while now.
But what I also have to do is take a step outside of my own bubble and realize that, apparently, for a vast many of people, Black, white, or other, the world that I call normal is actually pretty small and potentially anomalous, which is exactly why movies like Hidden Figures are important.
As you know by now, Hidden Figures is a movie that explores the roles several (and I do mean SEVERAL) Black women played in the early stages of America’s quest to get a man into outer space. It specifically tells an abbreviated story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three Black women mathematicians who worked at NASA’s Langley facility in Virginia in separate roles that were vital to the early space missions. Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) is especially vital in the movie as she’s the woman whose calculations SPECIFICALLY ensured America wouldn’t lose in the space race with Russia.
The movie is based on a true story, and sadly a story I had NO clue existed until the promotions for Hidden Figures began earlier this year. We are all aware that Black women’s contributions are often downplayed if not altogether erased when it comes to the struggle for civil rights in this country no matter the era, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t EXTREMELY frustrated by how much I learned about these pivotal women, and women like them, by watching this movie.
To know that there was an entire group of women period, but especially Black women, all of extraordinary intelligence and acumen, working at NASA ensuring the continuation of the early space program and having ZERO idea about their contributions is exactly why we need to support movies like this. It helps that it’s actually a good movie (though long, and that’s what she said) and that Janelle Monae (as Mary Jackson) and Octavia Spencer (as Dorothy Vaughan), as well as Taraji, are magnificent on screen.
Yes, there are definitely several moments that are specifically designed to make you clap or say “Amen” even though I’m pretty sure they didn’t happen exactly how presented. There are several speeches that seem a little bit too on the nose, though they are very important for moving along the greater point about discrimination Black women faced due to both their color and sex. But those a-little-bit-too-perfect moments don’t detract from the greater good and greater lessons to be learned from watching this movie: Black women are excelling everywhere, even in places where history tries to tell you they weren’t.
My daughter wants to be a scientist when she grows up. She’s not sure exactly what kind yet, and sometimes she wants to be a doctor and a scientist and a songwriter and a spy. Part of this desire is that many of the television shows for kids now feature kids, and girls specifically, who are conducting experiments and using their brains to change the world or whatever. I’m glad that my daughter can watch KC Undercover or Doc McStuffins and see girls of color being who she wants to be without any obstacle or roadblock. Because of those television shows, my daughter’s imagination is wide open.
But I definitely want my daughter to see Hidden Figures; that way, she can see why shows like KC Undercover or Doc McStuffins exist. She needs to know that these smart Black women took no prisoners and used the gifts they were blessed with to excel even if took 50 years for their stories to hit the mainstream. Our history is everything.
So many contributions of people of color have been overlooked, and Hidden Figures puts that fact front and center. Specifically, the roles of Black women in every facet of the furthering of our community are often relegated to background roles or plot devices. It’s a nice change of pace to see a movie headed up by a group of Black women about a group of Black women who not only excelled, but excelled in a world most people think is only inhabited by (white) men.
I realize that many women have a complicated relationship with the term “Black girl magic” and for various understandable reasons. But it is the term I thought of while watching the movie. No they’re not unicorns, just Black women doing the work that Black women have been doing for eons and fighting a fight that many of us fail to acknowledge, including some Black men who sometimes present ourselves as an additional foe. The Black women in this movie are brilliant mathematicians who paved the way for those women that I know who never realized that being a math major wasn’t an option. And the world is a better place for it.
Hidden Figures? I’m glad we found them. I look forward to finding more.