Saturday, January 21, 2017

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly *****

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly "inspired" the eponymous motion picture. The "inspired" is important because a movie tells a story while this book reports the story. The book reports three interesting and important stories: (1) the Jim Crow era, (2) the space race, and (3) the West Computers.

The Jim Crow era is covered from the depression through the Civil Rights Act. During the Jim Crow era, the south, and much of the rest of the country was segregated into white schools, stores, restaurants, service stations, and substandard or non-existent facilities for blacks. Even federal government research labs segregated their offices, cafeterias, and restrooms. For example:
" response, the state of Virginia set up a tuition reimbursement fund, subsidizing the graduate education of black students in any place but Virginia, a policy that continued until 1950."
"In Prince Edward County [Virginia], however, segregationists would not be moved: they defunded the entire county school system...rather than integrate. ...schools would remain closed 1959 through 1964."
The space race began with the Soviet sputnik satellite in 1957 and went through the moon landing by Neil Armstrong in 1969. Though on television, NASA looked like a sea of white men, women provided significant support. Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt tells the story of predominantly white women in Califonia, and this book reports on the black women in Virginia.

The West Computers were a segregated group of black women who performed complex mathematical calculation on desk calculators, first during World War II for the design of jets, and later during the space race in support of the Mercury and Apollo programs. These are the ladies that star in the movie.

This is a well-researched documentation of a problematic period of American history. It provides an important perspective on the events which lead to our conflicted race relations today. Well written and worth reading.

I found it interesting that one of the driving forces for civil rights in the 1960s was to counteract the Soviet Union's growing influence. As a government official said,
"In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all with this country. These countries where colored persons constitute a majority should not be able to point to a double standard existing within the United States."
The author presents this story with an optimistic view.
"But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never need to be broken again."
Progress is about big things, like the Civil Rights Act, and small things. When Uhuru wanted to move on with her acting career and leave Star Trek, Martin Luther King encouraged her to stay as a visible example for black girls and women.

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