Book Review: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figure:  The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Although I watched the movie that was based on an early version of this book when it was out in theaters [1] and enjoyed it, it took me some time to get around to this book, which (as one might imagine) is quite popular in my local public library system.  As one might well imagine, this book is full of racial politics and gender politics that I am at best ambivalent about [2], but thankfully this book focuses on the stories of generally appealing and sympathetic people and on the institutional history of black women (and other marginalized populations) within the NACA and then the NASA community at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.  Although the author was a first-time historian in writing this book the work is definitely a worthwhile one even if it shows more than a little bit of the skeletal work of the research that the author took and is not quite as polished as some works are.  Even so, this is a book that is easy to enjoy and easy to celebrate if someone has an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) as I do.

This book consists of 270 pages or so of written material (along with a lot of sources cited in the bibliography and endnotes) that is divided into more than twenty short chapters that look at the involvement of black women (as well as Jewish men, black men, and white women, to a lesser extent) in the technical side of aeronautical and space exploration in a period from the 1940’s to the 1970’s.  While it is a sprawling and even epic tale that the author spins, the tale is grounded in a few people (many of them, confusingly, named Katherine) who paved the way for access to professional careers in mathematics and engineering for black women.  Without a question, this book hinges a great deal on political questions and demonstrates that the competitive arena of the Cold War strongly encouraged America to work out its long history of racial injustice and not let prejudice harm national security interests.  Whether or not one appreciates the racial and gender politics of the author–and there is no question that the women focused on in this book were worthy of their positions and success and more–the people talked about in this book and their struggles are immensely sympathetically framed and the author thoughtfully raises many questions that the reader can take away from this book along with a wealth of human interest stories that really flesh out these people and make them more than merely names on a dusty and long-forgotten page.

I would like to at least briefly touch on some of these questions now.  The author suggests, rightly I think, that the people she writes about were not hidden so much as unseen, and I think part of it is that engineers and mathematicians and human “computers” tend not to receive a lot of attention or credit in the world as a whole.  We who are technically minded people are not necessarily the most charistmatic or attractive of people and we work in the shadows dealing with mathematics and other technical questions that many people are afraid of, regardless of what gender or color or whatever else we are.  Being hidden and obscure is an occupational hazard of being a technically-inclined person in general in a culture that celebrates celebrity.  Beyond that, I liked that the book showed how the various pioneers of black women in these technical fields of immense cultural importance were highly conscious of the need to work to benefit others and not only themselves, showing that success (especially for a marginalized group) is seldom a matter of individual excellence alone but also a whole set of groups and institutions designed to encourage confidence and build up competence.  The author has done an excellent job in shining a light on an obscure corner of the space race and I look forward to see if she writes anything else.


[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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