African Americans, especially women have been discriminated against for decades. For many years even after receiving legal rights things like segregation held African Americans back. In Margot Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures she highlights the true struggle of Black women in the times around WWII. Shetterly make the point that Black women contributed greatly to the war effort and not just, that they were a great part of our society and yet were still discriminated against.
Shetterly begins the book with an opening prologue connecting her life and her families experiences to the story that the book tells. She then dives into the 1940’s, Explaining that around this time how as many men were enlisted and there were not many highly educated people in the field of math places like Langley needed many more people she writes “.
This establishment has urgent need for approximately 100 Junior Physicists and Mathematicians, 100 Assistant Computers, 75 Minor Laboratory Apprentices, 125 Helper Trainees, 50 Stenographers and Typists,” (1) this is a primary source of a newspaper ad that shows the need for people to help, she then goes on to write about how women had been filling these rolls and were discriminated by men even if they were white. “First female computing pool, stated in 1935 had caused a uproar among the men” (4).
As the book continues she introduces Dorothy Vaughan a 32 year old African American woman who decided to work at Camp Picket for some extra money, she says how though it may be a menial task it was a great contributor as many of those jobs were. In the summer of 1943, Dorothy jumped at the chance to head to Camp Pickett and earn extra money during the school break” (10) Dorothy worked as a teacher, it was one of the few jobs that African American women could get that paid well enough and still it wasn’t much.
Dorothy didn’t have to take the job at camp picket but she did, she wanted to earn more money for her children and she wanted to contribute. The perspective is of a intelligent woman in the era of WWII that just wanted what was best for her family, she uses pathos here appealing to emotion and we see through her eyes as a woman and African American in this time.
Dorothy got her chance in May of 1943 to work at Howard Institute, it was a job that would pay her more than double of what she was earning and her intelligence and her preparation would allow her to get the job and succeed as seen when shetterly wrote about her applying ” How soon could you be ready to start work? She knew the answer before her fingers carved it into the blank: 48 hours, she wrote. I can be ready to go within forty-eight hours.” (17)
Shetterly then introduces Katherine, another Black teacher and though Katherine was younger than Dorothy, the two women’s families knew one another from the close knit communities that there were in black neighborhoods and, though they didn’t know it yet, their paths would cross many times in the future. This shows the ties among middle-class black families.
Shetterly also puts the lives of these women in perspective, she gives a quote from African American people on the front and those helping out country “What are we fighting for? they asked themselves and each other. The question echoed” () and although they were risking their lives for their country at the front and on the battlefield, at home, they weren’t granted the same rights as white citizens. She shows the social issue of discrimination still very prevalent.
Shetterly goes on and talks about langley and their involvement in the war. “The NACA sought nothing less than to crush Germany by air, destroying its production machine and interrupting the technological developments that could hand it a military advantage.” (52) She uses this to explain the background of langley and how The Langley laboratory gains prominence among important cultural figures, indicating its status in the fight against the Axis forces. The lab saved the city of Hampton from economic collapse after Prohibition. The American Aircraft industry had grown predominantly in the years from 1938-1943.
Though Langley was progressive in hiring black computer’s woman especially it still had rampant segregation that Shetterly highlights “Most groups sat together, for the west computers it was mandatory a white cardboard sign on a table in the back beckoned them” (43) reading COLORED COMPUTERS marks the west computers table so even though Langley allows the women to work for white engineers, the facility keeps them separate under Virginia’s “separate but equal” statutes. She here supports her argument, even though they worked so hard and were a very valuable member of the Langley team they were separated from their white counterparts.
Introducing a woman named Mary Jackson into the scene with learning of her past and what lead her here such as her dedication to community service, her parents, and her husband and son. setting up the idea that her accomplishments belong not just to her, but also to the community she’s a part of and that helped shape her. “Mary Jackson managed the USO’s modest financial accounts and welcomed guests at the club’s front door.
Her daily schedule, however, usually overflowed well beyond the job’s narrow duties, since the club quickly became a center for the city’s black community.” (95) Shetterly introduces another one of the amazing women into the story explaining more about her background and we see how the women connect.
Then as Mary begins to work at Langley and proves herself “Dorothy Vaughan sent Mary to the East Side, staffing her on a project alongside several white computers.” () Mary, will face opposition in the form of racism, segregation, and prejudice in her quest to build a career for herself at Langley. Technology has changed but policies surrounding race have not. Thus proving her argument.
A black man named James Williams cme to work at Langley around the same time as Mary, whe wished to be a engineer after falling in love with planes when he was younger. However “Williams had had to convince the guards at the Langley security gate that he wasn’t a groundskeeper or cafeteria worker ” (113) this shows how institutional racism impacts both men and women ways. black male engineers, have to endure daily embarrassment simply to do their jobs.
However, the black men at Langley don’t quite benefit from the support of others as many of the computers do, while still we see the fact that black women don’t have as many chances to prove themselves that men may have. This proves more about the social stigma but also supports how she keeps saying about the segregation almost 100 years after gaining rights.
As we move from the events placed such as ww2, its aftermath and the cold war the new technology it places how these things affected computers and really the whole of the american people. She brings this history into context saying “With the complexity that attended the relentless advance of aeronautical research came the need for a new machine.
In 1947, the laboratory bought an ‘electronic calculator’ “and as the space industry continues to grow and thrive and many technological advances are opening path for innovations at Langley still the end of WWII threatened the jobs of women and African Americans, the accelerating technology of the Cold War threatens to put many female computers out of work.
Shetterly explains Katherine and her determination but also how things like The Flight Research Division is doing some of the most innovative work of its time and the fact that Kathrine as a Black woman in this time got to attend things like the Editorial Meeting is a huge step, as the civil rights movement was gaining speed, there was still a long way to go. When she says ” “Why can’t I go to the editorial meetings?” she asked the engineers. A postgame recap of the analysis wasn’t nearly as thrilling as being there for the main event. How could she not want to be a part of the discussion? They were her numbers, after all.”
Then shetterly puts things like what happened in brown v. board and little rock nine in the context of the book “So far as the future histories of this state can be anticipated now, the year 1958 will be best known as the year Virginia closed the public schools,” () The very same goals NASA tries to pursue are undermined by the state’s refusal to provide an equal education to all children, regardless of race.
By shutting children of color out of white schools that offer more resources and better opportunities, the state reduces its own potential and not only that just proves how rampant the discrimination is. Shetterly also takes the context of history, as during the cold war when the U.S and the Soviet Union were fighting over technology and who was more advanced, though she brings civil right movement into this with the quote “All that money—and for what? …Negro women and men could barely go to the next state without worrying about predatory police, restaurants that refused to serve them, and service stations that wouldn’t let them buy gas or use the bathroom.
Now they wanted to talk about a white man on the Moon?” () she compares this time to previous times throughout american history, these events are important because black activists see it as further evidence that the US government doesn’t care about the lives of its black citizens.
Shetterly ends the book with this ” Dorothy played it close to the vest, she had expected to serve out her last few years as a section head, What a triumph it would have been to return to management, but as the head of a section that employed both men and women, black and white. The section head position was given to Roger Butler, a white man.
In 1971, there were still no female directors at Langley” It’s upsetting that Dorothy’s story ends in this way, but Shetterly notes that it doesn’t really end here instead it continues through the women who work at Langley in the years during and after she leaves, and who are only able to be there because of the opportunities she helped make possible. As she focused on Dorothy the most, to see how it ended and how Dorothy felt you can really feel it from her perspective
In conclusion i thought this book did a amazing job on taking the perspectives of women and african americans during this time period, and i believe Shetterly had good context in her book. One criticism i have of the book personally is that i believe it moved a little slowly. So overall i would give the book 4.5 stars, this is because of its good writing style, use of historical sources, connecting to the modern audience of african american women, those who still to this day face the discrimination that was prevalent throughout the book, and good use of the social history frequent through this time.
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