Hidden Figures

by Margot Lee Shetterly

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What are the main ideas of Hidden Figures?


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The main ideas of Hidden Figures are fighting discrimination and segregation, trusting African American women, and understanding that discrimination still exists in American society today.

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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly is centered on the lives of three black women who worked for National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in the 1950s and 60s. They worked as “computers” for NACA’s (which evolved into NASA) Langley Research Center in Virginia. Out of the hundreds of African American women that worked for NACA during this time, Shetterly focuses of three: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. The book is concentrated on the work that these women did to get Americans on the moon and the challenges they faced as African American women working in a segregated, male-dominated field in the South.

In the prologue, Shetterly writes,

As a child...I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.

Her perspective is contrasted with the world of segregation that her father grew up in and that the central figures of the book operated in. She notes from her own experience that she understands the

chutzpah it took for an African American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the Moon.

Hidden Figures both celebrates the power and intelligence of African American women and highlights the discrimination and racism that they face. Shetterly uses their stories to help understand her own and to help her readers understand their stories and societies. The main women in the book fought discrimination and had to prove that they deserved to have a seat at the table. Shetterly wants her readers to understand that this same level of discrimination, while maybe not as overt, still exists in American society today.

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Hidden Figures illustrates the lives of three African American women and their significant contributions to the field of aeronautics while working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) during the 1950s and 60s. Main ideas throughout the book include racism, hard work, perseverance, and community.

In the 1960s, racial segregation was a way of life in Virginia. The African American employees of NACA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton encountered discrimination on a daily basis. From separate work buildings to designated bathrooms, the main characters in this true story were well aware of their perceived value in comparison to their white counterparts. While racism was harmful to the individuals experiencing it every day, it also resulted in a loss of growth and success on a national level. Author Margot Shetterley wrote, "Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal."

Despite the many obstacles these women encountered on the job and in life, they demonstrated perseverance and hard work no matter the consequences. They worked twice as hard as their white colleagues for less pay and limited, if any, promotional opportunities. Yet they were determined to prove their worth in a society that did not believe in them.

The resolve of these women to stand up for themselves and each other in the face of racism was strengthened by their community. Through the support and encouragement of family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, each of the main characters were promoted at the “single best and biggest aeronautical research complex in the world.” In turn, they used their achievements and success to elevate others in their community and pave the way for the next generation of African American women.

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At the broadest levels, Hidden Figures, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, is about the black women who worked for NASA (formerly called NACA) as mathematicians (called human computers, or simply, computers) during the 1960s and who helped calculate the trajectories responsible for getting the United States' astronauts into space. While the popular movie focuses on Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), the book also pays considerable attention to the lives and stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, respectively), and other black women (and a few men) who worked at NASA during this time.

The book tells the story of people whose efforts went largely unrecognized. Until Shetterly wrote this book, very few people even knew these women existed or knew of their contributions to the "Space Race," a time from about the 1950s–1970s in which the United States was "racing" with other countries, (notably Russia/USSR) to be the first to explore various aspects of space travel.

A prominent theme throughout the book is the struggle for the black women at NASA to simply be seen as capable, intelligent human beings. During the 1960s in the United States, both blacks and women were considered to be lesser than their white male counterparts. To be a black woman, then, was to have many strikes against you simply by existing. Segregation was still the law of the land for most aspects of everyday life. Hidden Figures tells the stories of the lives of the Black women who had to overcome both racist and sexist ideas to show that they were capable human beings and deserved a fair shot at proving themselves and their intellectual abilities.

In fact, as black women, the people represented in the book, often had to be even better than their counterparts (who were generally white men) just to prove that they were competent. The black women in the book were taking up space in unfamiliar ways: by being mathematicians and by working in space travel, considered a men's profession. This meant that there was a lot of discomfort and adjustments that had to be made as the black women and white men began working together. These adjustments were not only about physical work spaces, but also about underlying ideas and ideologies about who gets to be considered a competent professional.

A big takeaway from the book is that the white men and black women did learn to adjust to working together, which opened the door to desegregation in other areas of life more generally. Unfortunately, because very few people knew about this until Shetterly published Hidden Figures, the contributions of the black women mathematicians had been erased. On a larger scale, this erasure has contributed to harmful ideas that still persist today about the roles and places that blacks and women can take up in modern-day society.

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What are the main themes of Hidden Figures?

Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who worked as mathematicians, also known as computers, at NASA during the space race. The book takes place between the 1930s and 1960s, at a time when racial tensions were high. The book brings to light the difficulties these women faced despite their intelligence and the integral part they played in landing man on the moon. Throughout the book, the main themes that are brought up are racism and inequality, community, and hard work and persistence.

Throughout their careers at NASA, which was then called NACA, these women were required to work in a separate area, use separate restrooms, and eat at their own place in the cafeteria. They learned to band together and form a community in which they were the only ones who understood the discrimination that they faced. Despite all of this, their hard work and perseverance helped them be successful, although it would unfortunately be years before they were acknowledged for their important and influential work.

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