This month, I finally finished a book I’ve been wanting to read for a very long time: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. I’ve seen the film adaptation (multiple times), but I thought it was time I read the book. And it was one of the most valuable history books I’ve read (and that’s coming from a former history major).
(From Goodreads) Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.
Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly these overlooked math whizzes had shots at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black West Computing group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and complete domination of the heavens.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the space race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellects to change their own lives – and their country’s future.
As I said, I had seen the film adaptation of Hidden Figures several times prior to reading the book (I meant to do it the other way around, but I couldn’t resist Octavia Spencer). So, I was pretty familiar with the story going in. And I will say, I did enjoy the movie more. I think it does a slightly better job at showcasing just how badass these women were because it is more visual and emotional. However, I do think the book has it’s own merits, and wouldn’t go so far as to say that if you’ve seen the movie, you don’t need to read the book.
The book does what the film cannot: give detailed cultural and personal context to these women and their stories. We see Mary Jackson use her limited free time (between working for NACA – not a typo, this was pre-NASA – and going to school to study engineering) help her son build a boxcar good enough that he became the first black boy in the US to win a race. We learn about Katherine Johnson’s first husband, and his struggle with cancer that left Katherine the single mother of three girls. That these women and their stories directly led to the creation of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, and made the idea of a black woman in space believable in 1967 (and how Martin Luther King Jr. himself convinced Nichelle Nichols to keep the job).
I learned so much from this book, not only about the space race, but about the people who made it possible. I enjoyed this book, and think it did a great job at what it set out to accomplish. Both in an academic setting and post-college, I’ve read quite a bit of feminist nonfiction and women’s history, but rarely have I come across a book that focuses so brilliantly on women of color and their accomplishments, especially in the mid-20th century. These women deserve to have their stories told, and, for me, that makes Hidden Figures so much more valuable.
While I do think Shetterly did these women’s stories justice, and injected excitement into the history, this was ultimately a history book. At times, it was slow and tough to get through, and it took me a while to finish it. But, ultimately, I think this is an incredibly valuable book, and I am so glad I finally ended up reading it. My advice to anyone looking to pick this up is to just take your time with it, because there is a lot of information. Or, do what I did and speed up the audiobook (more info on how to get it free below!)
I also highly recommend the audiobook, because, if you’re like me and find history books a bit dry, the Audible app lets you speed it up (I took full advantage of this)! If you’re interested, all you have to do to get a copy for free is sign up for a free trial of Audible (using this link) and choose Hidden Figures as one of your two free books (which you get to keep even if you cancel after the free trial period).