Hidden Figures

"Hidden Figures" Movie PosterBy Venus Malave, IT Support Specialist for Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Nation Sexual Violence Resource Center

Hidden Figures is a true story based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and directed by Theodore Melfi about three African-American women who worked for NASA that helped launch the first successful space mission. This all in the era when white supremacy was still at its peak and segregation was still the norm for people of color.

“Human Computers” is what they called science mathematicians before the first commercial scientific computer was created by IBM.  This amazing untold story shows a riveting account of three African-American women: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) who worked for NASA with over 30 other women of color in the segregated West Area Computing Unit for the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in the 1950s and 60s.  The film takes you through encounters of racism and sexism that women, especially women of color, had to endure during these times when white male privilege held priority.

One of my favorite parts in the movie is when Katherine goes on a restroom run.  That involved a run every day from the East Unit to the West Unit.   One rainy day on one of her runs with paperwork in her hands, she encounters her boss who questions her absence from her desk for 45 minutes every day.  Katherine’s bold response is surprising yet heartbreaking.  She firmly and confidently expresses her frustration regarding having to have to run a half mile in heels from the East Unit to the West Unit because there are no colored restrooms in their unit, something she knew could result in the loss of her job.

Watching Hidden Figures gave me both excitement and sadness. Excitement because my favorite actress, Taraji P. Henson from “Empire,” is in it; sad because this was a glimpse of what women of color had to go through before my time.  Doing research on these hidden figures was challenging because I came across so many stories of women who were never mentioned  in my history books:  Mathematicians like Katherine, Dorothy and Mary, aerospace engineers like Dr. Christine Darden  as well as modern day rocket scientists like Olympia Ann LePoint and many other  women who were some of the masterminds behind space travel.  The thought of a person of color going to outer space for me was unimaginable. It was just a dream I knew was not for people like me.  How could it be? I had never seen a person of color in my history books that was a mathematician, an astronomer, or a rocket scientist.

I would have loved to have learned more about these hidden figures growing up because if I did, maybe, just maybe, the fascination I had with the stars and the universe would have guided me in a different career path such as an Astronomer or Astrophysicist.

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