Hidden Figures: The American Dream & the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margo Lee Shetterly

My Copy: 9780062363596 (image from HarperCollins publishers)

I bought the book on a whim while at Barnes & Noble because I’m a space nerd, and even if I didn’t read it right away, I wasn’t going to wait for it to come out in paperback while it was right there in front of me.

What really surprised me was my best friend–who I don’t think of as a nonfiction fan–started gushing about it and demanded that I read it.

And since it wasn’t a recommendation about a certain sparkly-vampire series–for once– I was all for it.

Hidden Figures, basically, is the true story of black women, either teachers or recent college grads, who became mathematicians during World War II and helped pave the way for more black women to get into higher-level thinking jobs even decades later. The men were needed at the front, but at facilities necessary for war production, especially the aeronautics industry–there was a brain drain and not enough women had applied. Word spread and Langley became the home to many black women who applied to become human computers. Their jobs was to work with engineers (and fight to be recognized as engineers themselves) to analyze data that would help fix problems in existing war aircraft (and help develop new ones). At war’s end, many of them stayed on and as the cold war and aviation expanded, eventually into the space race, their influence and future possibilities expanded with it.

Hidden Figures is a unique read as far as my nonfiction collection is concerned. Part scientific work, part biography, and part social history, it took me a bit of time to get into the the writer’s style. At the beginning, introducing the “players” felt abrupt, and I had some trouble remembering people’s names because they were coming so fast, including their histories.

However, when I slowed down a bit (and went somewhere with fewer distractions), it was much easier to take in. Eventually, the information just wove a picture in my mind and I took it all in stride, seeing the figures come and go as their contributions and lives played out on the page.

Like many people, even those who are space nerds like me, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard these women’s stories before, and barely remember some of the names. I’m not as up on my science as I could have been (has I not pursued history), but being around NASA people off and on in my youth, I thought maybe I would’ve heard something.

But perhaps the very-secretive beginnings in and around Langley, VA contributed to that lack of understanding…and of course throw in the pervasive segregation, discrimination racism, etc.

And for those who want to understand science a little better, and don’t have much of a foundation in it anymore, it’s not that complicated to follow. Ms. Shetterly is good at giving some basic info on what the women were working on and at what times, the change in technology and how they worked with it, and the work is not peppered with equations for you to squint at and try to decipher.

What struck me was the description of these women and their personalities, how they dealt with things on a daily basis and their goals and dreams as they worked this complicated job that they seemed to love. Some of them were very determined and gave good insight as to the many paths black women had to tread between World War II and through the Civil Rights Movement. I think we tend to forget that there were lots of little pushes to change in those decades, not just one or two huge events.

I found these women full of common sense, determination, and hope, and the more I read, the better I felt as a human being. I wish like hell I’d not given up so early on math myself, because I find it fascinating, but just can’t seem to get it anymore…but I’m hell-bent on re-teaching myself what I can.

I will definitely recommend this book to anybody interested in social history, biography, the South, Cold War History, NASA and its beginnings, math (of course), or just great stories of women pioneers. I wondered how NASA began, and the book gives tons of info on the technology, the institutions and steps to create what we know of today.

And I’m glad my Sister-By-Choice recommended this one to me, because now that I’ve read it, we’ve got something to talk about that has nothing to do with a certain book series I’ve avoided like the plague.

3 thoughts on “Hidden Figures: The American Dream & the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margo Lee Shetterly

  1. PiedType.com says:

    I realize that saying I saw the movie does not equate to reading the book, but my reaction was a lot like yours. How could I claim to be a space nerd and never have heard of these amazing women? I watched the movie with my 11-year-old granddaughter and there was so much food for conversation! The space race, racism, sexism. I was in high school when the space race started and to date consider it the most exciting, uplifting period in my life. I felt sheepish pointing out the numerous examples of sexism and racism that I’d grown up with, and hopeful seeing how much things have improved for my granddaughter. And the women in the movie were just wonderful examples for her! Dignity, hard work, self-discipline. She even said she wants to be a rocket scientist. What a wonderful time we had together!

    Liked by 1 person

    • TheChattyIntrovert says:

      I heard the book and movie hit on many of the same points, though I’m sure the movie made it far clearer with body language and all. I definitely want to see it, but I’m officially broke and will have to wait a while…or my bestie will buy it and “force” me to watch it (hee hee). Nice to hear another positive review of the movie. I thought it was all totally inspiring.


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