‘Hidden Figures’ author tells the story of the black women who helped win the space race
Up Next From Culture
Somewhere tonight, a little girl will be tucked in and told that she is “loved to the moon and back.”
She may begin, before drifting into dreamland, to compute the distance her caregiver’s love has to travel to reach the moon and then return to her.
And if author Margot Lee Shetterly has her way, when that little girl awakens from her slumber, she’ll learn the names of the women who helped charter that journey.
“Hidden Figures,” Shetterly’s first book, is the story of the nearly forgotten black women who worked at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s first field center, circa World War II. In the 1940s, these female scientists and mathematicians were the human computers behind some of the biggest advancements in aeronautics.
“The title of this book is something of a misnomer,” Shetterly noted. “The history that came together in these pages wasn’t so much hidden, but unseen — fragments patiently biding their time in footnotes, family anecdotes and musty folders before returning to view.”
Shetterly’s book, which will be released Tuesday, will also be adapted into a 20th Century Fox film of the same name that will hit theaters in early 2017.
The movie, which is expected to be a blockbuster success, will star Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, a physicist, space scientist, and mathematician; Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician; Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, also a mathematician; and Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the head of the space program.
Seeing such boldface names attached to a film adaptation of her book was quite the shock for Shetterly. So much so that she didn’t believe the movie’s producer, Donna Gigliotti (“Silver Linings Playbook”), when she expressed interest in the story.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever, right,’ but everything she said every step along the way has really come to fruition,” Shetterly said.
The book starts with World War II and travels through the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the space race, providing a fly-on-the-wall style account of the women who helped create some of the greatest aeronautics accomplishments for the United States.
These former school teachers and beautiful minds, who were relegated to math instruction in the segregated South, were called into service during the labor shortages of the war. Then suddenly things at Langley became a bit more colorful, and of course, inspiring.
Shetterley’s father was a NASA engineer and her mom worked as an English professor at Hampton University in Virginia, so she grew up in the same neighborhood where many of these maverick women resided.
When writing about the unseen and seemingly forgotten women who contributed to NASA’s race to the moon, Shetterly is preoccupied with the narrative of numbers: “For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity.”
The book also focuses on who these women were beyond their jobs, and sees them from a community perspective. “They were mothers, wives, Girl Scout troop leaders and your next-door neighbors,” Shetterly said.
“Literally, for me, they were women in my neighborhood. But they were concurrently doing this extraordinary work. The idea that you can be an ordinary person and an extraordinary person at the same time, as opposed to the pressure of being the one and only black person, or the one and only woman. … The fact that there were so many of them is what makes this story so exceptional.”
Shetterly has spent the last six years counting exceptional communities of women. The numbers of known women mathematicians who worked for NASA are continuing to grow, and she hasn’t finished counting yet.
After completing “Hidden Figures,” Shetterly started The Human Computer Project, the mission of which is “to tell the stories of the pioneering women who worked as mathematicians and ‘computers’ at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and NASA in the early days of aeronautics and the American space program.”
Shetterly hopes that with the release of her book and accompanying film, even more names will begin pouring in, and more history will be revealed. Thereafter, she’d like to expand research to NASA’s Glenn Center in Cleveland. The book, she says, is the first part of a midcentury African-American history trilogy.
Shetterly’s boundless optimism is apparent when speaking with her. It comes across in the lilt of her voice, in the way she laughs after she says, “You know?” It is more than simple joy; it is hope.
She moves through the world like a woman who has never been told, “You must be crazy!” for the crime of speaking her ambitions aloud.
Before writing became her full-time gig, she thrived in corporate America — working in investment banking for JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch. Then she transitioned to publishing, eventually establishing her own English language magazine, “Inside Mexico,” from 2005 to 2009 with her husband and fellow writer, Aran Shetterly.
So for her, writing this story was more of a dream initially.
“This book really came about the way I think a lot of these engineering and math things did,” she said. “You come up with a plan, but then you’ve got to take one step and another step, and then break the whole thing down into tiny parts. The same is true for this project.”
Shetterly’s steps included archival research and personal interviews. The details of her book are rich with first-person experiences, like this line from chapter five, that dissects the women’s treatment in their work cafeteria: “A white cardboard sign on a table in the back of the cafeteria beckoned them, its crisply stenciled black letters spelling out the lunchroom hierarchy: COLORED COMPUTERS.” These very intimate accounts provided the pages a very deep understanding of the dedication and strength of these women.
“Hidden Figures,” as a project, is the revelation of those previously unrecognized women. It reads like a family history for distant cousins who don’t come around too often. Shetterly quilts together pieces of the stories she painstakingly gathered over the years until the tapestry was deep, engaging and warm.
Her mission, both in writing the book and heading The Human Computer Project, is to help little girls around the world — in particular those of color — know that women who look like them and share their history helped make the United States great.
Imagine if every girl was able to say, as Shetterly writes in the introduction of her book, “the face of science was brown.”