Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, narrated by Robin Miles

This is one of those stories from history that is so incredible that we didn't already know this. And yes, I was completely inspired by the movie (which I loved) to read this book. And I'm so glad I was! These woman are so inspiring, aspirational, and impressive. What's sad is that I don't see women in these numbers excelling in math and science-based careers today, let alone women of color, and opportunities ought to be so much more expansive today than in the 1940s (when this book begins), let alone the 1960s (when the space race reached its pinnacle.)

In case you've been living under a rock, this books follows three women of color (primarily--a dozen other women are featured less prominently) who worked at NACA—late NASA—as "computers" and who proved instrumental in both pushing forward the rights of women and people of color, and also in forwarding the cause of NASA. I think the most impressive was Katherine whose calculations were so unfailingly inaccurate that John Glenn asked her to double-check the electronic computers, which he didn't trust, for things like his reentry trajectory. But Dorothy's story spoke to me the most, as a woman who rose in the ran ks and was a supervisor at a time when it was hard for any woman of any color to hit that level, but then finally when the color barrier was removed and the two units of white and black computers were merged, lost her position. That's a side effect of different rights' movements that is rarely focused on—the setbacks along the way even in the wake of—and sometimes as a direct result of—progress.

I also didn't realize until partway into this book that not only were these African-American women working in Jim Crow-era Virginia, but they were in Prince Edward County. In 2015 I read the book Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green about the horrific racial tensions in that county which led to the complete defunding of the public school system for several years in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education enforcement, and which resulted in segregated schools until 1986. That's not a typo! So the political and social environment surrounding these women was even worse than I think either the book or the movie let on.

Their accomplishments were towering. The environment in which they excelled made those accomplishments even more impressive, if that's possible. Thank you, Ms. Shetterly, for uncovering this story and writing about it so well that everyone wants to read about it (as they well should.) I'm very excited to hear what her next book will be about! I hear she's been meeting with publishers and the contract is expected to be a well-deserved large one!

I downloaded this eaudiobook from my library via Overdrive.

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