Why were these women hidden for so long?
Last night, Naomi and I indulged in a moment of spontaneity and went to watch the phenomenal new movie; Hidden Figures. For those of you who do not know, the film is based on the true story of three African American heroes, ‘computers’, who helped America win the space race. The film was highly inspiring and gave great insight not only to the world of work for African Americans in the 60s and 70s, but also to the world of space travel and engineering. The three women of focus are Katherine G Johnson, played by Taraji P Henson, Dorothy Vaughan played by Octavia Spencer and Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monae. These women, whose names have been hidden for the past twenty or so years, are truly extraordinary.
Katherine G Johnson recently received America’s highest civilian award: The Presidential Medal of Freedom (2015), and how fitting it was for her to receive it from America’s first black president Barack Obama. In the film Taraji does extreme justice with her role as Johnson, and allows us to truly empathise with her struggle. There was a scene that left me in tears, but I don’t want to spoil it for you by giving it away! We see a single woman of three beautiful young girls hold down a job where they referred to as a ‘computer’, yet she gave her all at work.
Mary Jackson (1921 – 2005) was the first black female engineer to work for NASA. She qualified with a bachelor’s degree in Maths and Physical Science and went on to further study after winning her court case to enrol in an all-white school in West Virginia. Monae also delivered a brilliant performance playing Jackson, showing Jackson’s sassy, fierce and ambitious character. She was a married woman who carried the weight of both family and work life. She knew her worth and did not let anything stop her from getting to the top of her career. Jackson earned the most senior title available in engineering and worked at NASA for thirty-four years, she took a demotion and began helping and promoting aspiring women in the field of engineering and science at NASA.
Dorothy Vaughan (1910 – 2008) was also a phenomenal woman, she did what I hear most people complain and leave jobs over today! She worked as an unofficial supervisor for a while, running the division of ‘coloured computers’, without receiving the pay or title of the role. Vaughan went on to officially become supervisor and lead programmer of the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) at Langley. Vaughan is played by the incredible Oscar winner, Octavia Spencer, who again delivers a brilliant performance in this heart-warming film. Spencer shows us how Vaughan stayed ahead of the game, after learning of the new technology that would have put her and all the rest of the ‘coloured computers’ out of jobs, she found a way for herself and her girls to stay employed!
All of these women were mothers, daughters, wives and experts in their field. They were intelligent and never dimmed their light for anybody. They were not arrogant about what they had achieved or could achieve intellectually, but remained humble, even till today! Listening to one of Henson’s interview, she described Johnson as ‘humble, never using the words I or we…’ Johnson saw the work at NASA as one unit, they were truly all working together to achieve one common goal. They also showed that just because they had intellectual ability, it did not exempt them from hard work. As many black children were told when I was growing up, ‘you have to work ten times harder to achieve than some of your other peers.’ This film shows just how hard these women had to work especially in a male dominated industry. They were women and they were black, meaning that all the supposed odds were against them! Nonetheless, they never gave up; they all knew their worth and they all believed in their abilities. The sisterhood also fascinated and gripped me generating a warm feeling within my heart as I sat in what was quite a dingy cinema. That sisterhood is arguably lost within the black women community in today’s new millennia.
On a wider scope, there was an even deeper hint of sisterhood between all women in the film (apart from one, but she was bitter anyway!), there was such grace and elegance and we see how women can get their way without being aggressive or sensual.
Theodore Melfi, director and screenwriter of Hidden Figures said in a recent interview that he dedicated the film to ‘everyone in the world who sat through unconscious bias’. What a powerful statement and something that we probably as an entire race should think about.
Another noteworthy point is these women are only coming to light now, Johnson is 98 and the other two ladies have passed on leaving a huge legacy behind them. I suppose the question that I am asking is; why did it take so long for these women to be recognized for an event that made history? Perhaps it just wasn’t the right timing, and now when the world or at least certain parts of it collectively celebrates Black Girl Magic we can salute these heroes. This suggests that when you are where you are meant to be, you will shine.
-Cauline for LAMBB