Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Education of Hidden Figures

The film Hidden Figures was another Academy Award nominee that we had the pleasure of seeing on our recent trip to Alameda, California. Like Fences which I discussed last week, it concerns black life in America in the fifties and sixties. The film, based on a true story only recently recounted in a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, centered around three young black women who were involved in the US space program at its very beginning.

The key figure in the film was Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and physicist, played beautifully by Taraji P. Henson. Johnson specialized in celestial mechanics, and played a key role in the calculations necessary to bring an astronaut safely back to earth while re-entering earth’s atmosphere.

The other two women were Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer who was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance. Actually, Vaughan was not a mathematician but a “computer,” that is, one of a whole crew of intelligent, skilled young women who in the early days of the space program did the incredible number of calculations necessary at NASA at a time when the original IBM computers were just beginning to appear. They used only pencils and primitive calculators.

Most of these “computers” were young, intelligent, and skilled women both white and black. In the early days of NASA, which corresponded with the early days of the civil rights movement, these women were segregated even to the point of having to use separate bathrooms. Dorothy Vaughan fought to become supervisor of the all-black unit but at the same time she saw the handwriting on the wall and taught herself Fortran, the language used by the new IBM computers.

Hidden Figures is an excellent, uplifting film with a truly exciting ending as all, black and white, sweat out the problems of John Glenn’s epic first mission with its dangerous fiery return from orbit. However, a couple of thoughts occurred to me as I thought about the film afterwards.

I couldn’t help but be impressed by the black women in the cast, not just the three leading ladies but by the whole group of “computers.” Where did all these young women come from? Where did they develop their skills? Most of them seemed to be just out of high school. Moreover, since most of them were from the South, all of them must have come from segregated, all-black schools. In actual fact, Dorothy Vaughan became a supervisor in 1949 before the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision decided that separate but equal schools in the South were not equal.

Could it be that these segregated schools were not as unequal as the Supreme Court judges thought? A recent letter in the Wall St. Journal from a resident of Louisville, Kentucky bemoaned the fate of his city’s public school system since the forced integration of its schools. He claimed that a flourishing school system back then is now a disaster, especially for blacks. Just today an op-ed in the Wall St. Journal by a black columnist bemoaned the chaos in the New York City public school system.

During my career as a financial advisor, one of my clients was a black man who was a guidance counsellor in a nearby urban school system. He also held a PhD and was on the Board of Governors of the University of Connecticut. He liked to brag about his all-black school in Oklahoma where his small graduating class eventually produced three PhDs.

I could also mention Zora Neale Hurston, a black writer from the South who at the time was very critical of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. She did not believe that black schools were inherently unequal and argued that the idea that blacks needed to be educated with whites would not result in better education. It would also be a death blow to the progress that black schools and teachers were already making. She wrote,

If I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.

 I suspect that Hurston and most of the black women depicted in Hidden Figures were proud of the education they received in their segregated schools. I suspect that they even loved these schools. They had black administrators and teachers who spoke their language, knew their culture, and acted as powerful role models. They could excel in all areas of education not just in sports. They could write and edit the school newspaper and yearbook. They could participate in student government and be elected class President on their own merits and not because of tokenism.

I can imagine what they might have thought when far away judges told them that their schools were unequal, and that they, even the smallest, would have to be bused to schools far away from their neighborhoods. I don’t think they all chose to be part of a great social experiment but then, as now, they had no choice.


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