Thoughts: Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

This should give you an idea of how far behind I am.

I almost felt a bit bad reading this one now, because the triumph of the story of how black female mathematicians were part of history all along actually felt so dissonant to the current unrest in the US. But you know what? It was a great time to read it.

A sort of disclaimer! Pre-emptively, I am not here for “if you’re not x you haven’t been paying attention” on this. I am not American. I am from a different continent and have lived in different countries which have just as much history and politics to them, and I’m not comfortable apologising for not being aware of some very detailed history from before I was born in a different country. I’m just not, and I don’t like the parts of the internet that have begun to tend towards blaming people for becoming aware of something later than other people, but that’s by the by. Everyone has to learn things. Don’t shit on strangers for not doing so to your personal timetable.

Obviously there’s no spoilering history, but let’s snip for length.

This book is so meaty, first of all. It’s full to bursting with information, and there’s still so much more that didn’t make it in. Shetterly has done a heroic job of keeping it to one book, and I hope other people are inspired by her research to be able to engage in a variety of angles on this, dig into the stories behind some of the other names and see how much more there is to uncover. Shetterly also does a great job of balancing the maths and the human aspect of it all, giving us a sense of these women’s lives and the world in which they lived as well as giving us enough information to appreciate just how amazing their achievements were on a scientific scale, as well as the sociocultural one of being successful, intelligent black women in an incredibly hostile racist environment. The nature of that complicated environment, differing from year to year, state to state, workplace to workplace and boss to boss, is drawn in quite a non-American friendly manner too, which I appreciated greatly.

And here’s the thing – I felt as though I was reaching for something feelgood in a time when things are racially awful in the US, but the more I read, the more Hidden Figures revealed the length and nature of the fight for US civil rights. Did you know that Virginia is the worst state? I do now! When segregation was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, the leader of Virginia just defunded schools which attempted to comply with the ruling. Not just threatened to defund them, but did so. For a while! Ruining the actual tangible lives of thousands of people!

Another thing which I found really interesting was that the US’s appalling racial injustices damaged its standing among the rest of the world.  Why indeed would any majority non-white nation trust the US, when they can see how the US treats people like them (and indeed, treated various foreign leaders and dignitaries in its racist ignorance more than once)?

Is that reassuring? To know that some* of the things that seem so unprecedentedly bad today over there have in fact happened before and yet the US’s non-white population has continued to force progress? I don’t know if reassuring is the word, but the feel of history behind you is certainly different. It doesn’t feel depressing somehow either (to me, a person with pretty much no personal connection to these issues). I don’t know. However much the establishment whines and fights against equality and justice, they aren’t going to win in the end.

NACA, as it once was, was certainly a progressive haven in that wider context, but even there they had work to do, and the ambitious black women who worked there and their allies helped march it along, asking to be allowed into meetings, stealing canteen signage that marked out their “allowed” seats, using their connections to help others get a foot in the door.

I just thoroughly enjoyed this read, and there’s not much more I can say without just reciting the whole thing. Highly recommended.

*Obviously not all, let’s not be obtuse.

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