What “Hidden Figures” Reveals About Race, Women, and How Our Sons See Our Daughters

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

The rush to sign kids up for summer camps is always intense, but this past summer, few filled up as quickly as the one targeted at girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). My family lives in a college town, home to one of the top-ranked science schools in the country, and getting my scientifically curious nine-year-old daughter into that camp felt like shooting for the stars.

We didn’t even make the waiting list for the camp last summer. However, this last week I did make the long drive into the city to take my daughter to see an early screening of Hidden Figures, which in some ways offers something better than a STEM camp. Summer camps and chemistry kits under the Christmas tree do much to kindle curiosity in the sciences, but this movie presented an opportunity to fan that curiosity into flame with a potent story of possibility. This, after all, is the power of fictional and nonfictional role models: They give concrete shape to inchoate longings.

The stories of Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) provide compelling inspiration. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the film centers on these three African American women who worked at NASA as “computers” calculating the complex mathematics needed to make space travel possible. Vaughan was an expert in programming and the first female African American promoted to personnel supervisor at what would eventually become NASA, and Jackson was the first female African American aeronautical engineer.

The film gives center stage to Johnson, whose particular expertise in analytical geometry and celestial navigation made her indispensible. The film truthfully depicts (albeit with some dramatic license in the timing) astronaut John Glenn (Glenn Powell) requesting that Johnson personally check the trajectories and entry points that the IBM had produced before his first orbit around earth. “Get the girl to do it,” he said. “I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer, and if she says they’re good, you know, I’m good to go.” Johnson went on to calculate the Apollo 11 flight trajectory to the moon—just one of many career accomplishments that earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Bronwyn Lea