Hidden Figures

by Margot Lee Shetterly

Cover image

Publisher: William Morrow
Copyright: 2016
ISBN: 0-06-236361-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 272

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

Buy at Powell's Books

I appreciate the film industry occasionally finding good books that I should read.

As I suspect most people now know from the publicity of the movie, Hidden Figures is the story of the black women mathematicians who performed the calculations that put a man on the Moon. Or at least that's the hook, and the conclusion of the story in a way. But the meat of the story, at least for me, was earlier: the black women who formed the mathematical backbone of NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and specifically the NACA facility at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. NACA eventually transformed into NASA and took on a new mission of space exploration, but that comes relatively late in this story.

The story opens in 1943 when Melvin Butler, the personnel officer at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, had a problem: he needed more support staff for NACA's mission to improve US airplane technology. Specifically, he needed mathematicians and computers (at the time, computer was a job title for a person who performed mathematical computations; practical electronic computers were still far in the future). An initially-controversial female computing pool, started at Langley in 1935, had proven incredibly successful, but mathematically-trained white women were in scarce supply. Butler therefore, with support and cover from A. Philip Randolph's successful push for Roosevelt to open war jobs to black candidates, made the decision to start recruiting black women.

Shetterly makes clear how complex and fraught this was. Langley was located in Virginia, a segregated southern state, and while the NAACP had already started opening cracks in the walls of segregation, Brown v. Board of Education was more than ten years into the future. The white female computers were already logistically separated, since no woman could supervise a man. The black women would need to be segregated further, and Butler's recruitment efforts were kept fairly quiet. But wartime necessity opened a lot of doors. And so, West Computing (distinct from the white women in East Computing) was formed, named after its location in Langley's underdeveloped West Area.

Hidden Figures starts with Dorothy Vaughan, the woman who will eventually become the head of West Computing, and later follows threads of connection from her to Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and others who started in West Computing. It also, effectively and memorably, starts by setting the scene through both biographical details of the women's lives and authorial descriptions of the complex tapestry of black colleges and social relationships they came from.

For me, writing this as a white man in 2018 who grew up on the west coast and visited even the modern US South a mere handful of times, it's very hard to get an emotional or visceral sense of what segregation was like, beneath the bones of historical fact. Hidden Figures does the best job of that of any book I have ever read. Shetterly is blunt and unflinching in her descriptions, but also borrows from her biographical subjects a sense of practical determination and persistence that avoids drowning the story in the injustice of US racial politics. Segregation was an obstacle and a constraint these women navigated around, persisted against, suffered through, and occasionally undermined, but it wasn't the point. The point was the work they were doing: the NACA work to develop and then fine-tune military aircraft technology, the post-war work of supersonic research, and finally the space program. Segregation, racism, and sexism were pervasive, but they weren't defining; they were barriers in the way of their true life's work. That core of determined joy in the work is what makes this book sing, and outlines a path towards hope.

That this is Shetterly's first book is extremely impressive. She has a confident grasp of her material, full control over a complicated interweaving of timelines and biographies of multiple women, and an ability to describe both cultural institutions and engineering work in a way that holds a reader's attention and interest. This is tricky material for a book because, while these women's lives are dramatic, it's a drama of careful work, slow progress, persistence, and carefully-chosen defiance. (I will always remember the story of Miriam Mann taking the "COLORED COMPUTERS" sign off the lunch table each day and making it disappear into her purse, until whoever was responsible for placing it finally gave up and stopped.) The dramatic beats don't follow a normal plot structure. But Shetterly handles this magnificently for most of the book, keeping the pacing fast enough to remain engrossing but slow enough to communicate the underlying reality and sense of place.

The one mild criticism I have of the book is that once it enters the NASA era and the challenge of the space program, I thought Shetterly started forcing her dramatic beats just a touch. I think she was trying to build to a climactic payoff and emphasizing the inherent drama of the Moon landing to do so, but it felt in a few places like she was trying too hard and not letting the story carry itself. This was at the same time as a huge transition from performing calculations themselves to learning to program computers, and I would have loved for Shetterly to dwell a bit more on that, but she rarely got into the details of the day-to-day work. That quibble aside, though, the story is compelling and fascinating to the very end.

Shetterly also pulls off a very advanced technique that I would not recommend other writers try: the whole story is told using the language of the time. Black people are Negros, women are girls, and the very language of the book rolls back decades of social progress. This was done carefully and exceptionally well, and for me it did a lot to communicate the visceral feel of the time (and to drive home just how much society has changed in at least the level of condescension and contempt that can be openly stated). I was surprised at how much the pervasive use of "girls" made my skin crawl, and how clearly and succinctly it communicated the struggle of the computers to be taken seriously as mathematicians and engineers.

I have not watched the movie version of Hidden Figures and probably won't, although I hear it's very good. But for others like me who prefer words over images, I can confirm that the book is excellent. It's not just a valuable history at the cross-section of aviation, computing, racial politics, and gender politics. It's also an illuminating and compelling case study on the effects of institutional racism and sexism, on how black women maneuvered through those restrictions, and on the persistence, determination, and patience required for social change.

Recommended. This is a piece of American history that you don't want to miss.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-11-19

Last modified and spun 2018-11-22