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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race Paperback – December 6, 2016
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“Meticulous… the depth and detail that are the book’s strength make it an effective, fact-based rudder with which would-be scientists and their allies can stabilize their flights of fancy. This hardworking, earnest book is the perfect foil for the glamour still to come.” (Seattle Times)
“Much as Tom Wolfe did in “The Right Stuff”, Shetterly moves gracefully between the women’s lives and the broader sweep of history . . . Shetterly, who grew up in Hampton, blends impressive research with an enormous amount of heart in telling these stories (Boston Globe)
“Restoring the truth about individuals who were at once black, women and astounding mathematicians, in a world that was constructed to stymie them at every step, is no easy task. Shetterly does it with the depth and detail of a skilled historian and the narrative aplomb of a masterful storyteller.” (Bookreporter.com)
From the Back Cover
The #1 New York Times bestseller
Now a Major Motion Picture from Twentieth Century Fox
The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space
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. Originally math teachers in the South’s segregated public schools, these gifted professionals answered Uncle Sam’s call during the labor shortages of World War II. With new jobs at the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, they finally had a shot at jobs that would push their skills to the limits.
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 as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.
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I was an officer in the Air Force for 20 years, working in the missile and space industry. I also lived in Hampton, VA, for 6 years growing up. I feel like the author has given me back a piece of my history that I never knew was missing. I've always known that there are women who went before, upon whose shoulders I stand, but it is incredible to add a deeper understanding of what that meant and to know their names.
Thank you, Margot Lee Shetterly, for persevering and doing the work to bring this history to light in a way that makes it accessible.
Sure, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, et al are amazing, inspiring, and strong, but their own modesty over their roles in NACA/NASA history is telling: like many black pioneers of the Jim Crow era, they didn't step up for the attention or accolades. They stepped up to be "the first" in order to pave the way for those who would come behind them.
Shetterley deftly reveals these cross-generational ties at Langley, as well as how for African-Americans, the professional is often the personal when it came to representation and community. The portions of the book that were the most fascinating to me were those pertaining to the links forged by the black community in the Southern Virginia area, and how they intersected with employment and residency in Hampton as the 20th century progressed.
Shetterley's prose shined the best on the minutia of the women's lives, but the parts about NACA/NASA were just as interesting--and Shetterley's explanations of the mathematics and aeronautics is masterful. It was never pedantic, yet never overly simplified. As I reached the end, I was disappointed there weren't more pages, but also even hungrier for more stories about the intersection of race, gender, and science!
Get this book! It is an excellent companion to Nathalia Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls and Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club, for a comparison of the different experiences of women in the Space Race.
Generally, the book is a very fast-paced and interesting read about the black women who worked at the Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, and their many and varied contributions to the field of aeronautical and astronautical research. It is part biography, part history of NASA, part history of segregation, part history of the civil rights movement, part history of the Virginia peninsula, and part history of women's rights. It is absolutely fascinating.
That being said, the book is very different from the movie, so don't go into it expecting them to be the same. The movie is deeply touching, but it is actually fairly inaccurate, and it has been pretty aggressively whitewashed (see re: the Kevin Costner character). I think it is good to both see the movie and read the book, because one of the critical differences, and the difference that I think is missed entirely by the movie (to its great detriment) is the way in which issues of segregation were actually tackled at Langley. The movie makes it appear that enlightened white men of power were responsible for Langley's integration, when in fact the integration of Langley was almost entirely borne organically and of necessity. The book does a good job of explaining this, whereas that aspect of the movie is almost entirely fictionalized. I thought the movie took away some of the women's victories in this area (Katherine Johnson, for example, never went to the "colored" bathroom. She just used the regular, unlabeled bathroom, and no one ever told her not to), but the book gives the women more credit for their small yet trailblazing acts of defiance.
One other note: the book actually covers quite a bit of complex scientific detail, but it is entirely readable to the layperson.
I highly, highly recommend this book.