Belinda’s Book Nook Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly


Title: Hidden Figures
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Copyright: September 6th 2016
Genre: non-fiction
Format: book Pages: 368

I saw the preview for the movie “Hidden Figures” around two months ago and the cast for the movie are some actresses (Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer) that I really like. They would be be portraying the women from the book. This movie is based on a true story about black women that were mathematicians back in the 30s thru the 70s that contributed to major developments in aeronautical engineering with NACA (Nationa Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and later for NASA’s space program.  I found out that the movie was based on a book so I quickly zoomed over to Amazon and pre-ordered the book.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

My Thoughts:

What you need to know is that for myself and many other black people in this country we are thrilled when we see people that look like us making big achievements and contributions to this country. Because, so often, we read about our history and it is filled with slavery and then there’s a big gap and then there’s present day. It’s as if we’ve never contributed anything to this country that we went from slaves to free people and then that was it. We also are inundated with news reports today with the imagery of black America in a one dimensional perspective (usually committing a crime) and bypassing any major contributions. So when I heard about this book and this movie I wanted to know more. I couldn’t believe how many black woman were working in these major establishments.   Because up until this book, with the exception of a handful of astronauts from the early 80s into the 2000s,  I never knew of all of the black woman who were working hard behind the scenes to make these endeavors possible. Because the most common images I’ve always seen from NASA was a room filled with white man in white shirts with black ties staring at monitors sans any diversity.

Let’s remember also this book takes place during the 30s 40s 50s and up into about the 1970s. So to hear about achievement of this magnitude by black women during this time seems unheard of to me. But that wasn’t the case. They were black women that despite segregation and all of the racism that was taking place here in this country, that pursued high level degrees in science and mathematics  (with teaching as a back up), that went on to work and NACA and NASA to contribute to aeronautics and flight into our space program. These women managed to pursue their mathematical and scientific degrees and secure jobs at NACA as computers, mathematicians, and scientists.

It was during World War II when the country was really trying to bolster it’s space program in order to compete, defeat and exceed the Russian space program that the doors became open to anyone and everyone who could help meet this goal.  What’s interesting is that the drive was so strong that all of the internal issues that was going on in the United States in terms of race relations and segregation residuals of slavery were eventually put to the side to achieve this goal. This is not to say that it was without difficulties and there was segregation at the workplace. But as their collegeaus began to see how devoted and talented these women were, they began to request them on more and more projects. John Glenn, one of our most famous astronaut, specifically requested Katherine Johnson (one of the women highlighted in this book) to run the numbers and computations to ensure a successful flight into space. By this time, actual computers (machines) were introduced but he was that sure of her ability that he placed his life into her hands.

All this said, I went into the book with a lot of anticipation and excitement. I even recommended it to my book club which is surprisingly they accepted. I got home and I just dove into the book. Although I managed to learn a great deal about the contributions and the struggles that these women faced leading up to their employment, the structure of the book made me put it down often.

The problem for me was that the book weighs heavy on facts and information and less about the story of the women. I had to read 80 pages before I even got into some sort of story and introduction to some of the ladies. My desire to read this book and learn might not be the same as others so readers might ditch the book before getting to the point where the women’s stories begins. Even after the stories begins, Shetterly didn’t quite integrate the story with the data so there are long periods of facts and technical information then stories about the women. It made for a harder read for.

In all fairness, coming off the election emotions, might have tainted my view or tolerance for this format a bit. Perhaps a different time, might have made a difference. But I do recommend this book even with the format she chose to use to tell the story. Because it is an important part of our history and also a game-changer for some young children of color to find more role models in the fields of mathematics and science.

I give this book 3 1/2 butterflies and I can’t wait to see the movie!





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