Saturday 18 February 2017

Thought Picnic: #HiddenFigures - Telling uplifting stories

Telling the untold stories
We all have stories, some so ordinary within which are some even quite extraordinary but never gets told. Sometimes, we get to tell our own stories or others honour us with the gift of telling our stories in words better than we can find to tell them.
Watching Hidden Figures at a late night cinema visit yesterday, I got to learn of remarkable women whose contribution to the advancement of space research and science could have been lost, the recognition of which might have been late for those who have already passed on, but there remains one with whom to celebrate.
The lives of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Goble Johnson would have much resonance with everyone in its uplifting message and achievement.
Give them a foundation
Without making this into a review of the film, there are many strains that one could relate to or take away from the story being told. The fact that in the time of seriously anti-black Jim Crow laws and segregation, parents chose to send their smart female children to school all the way through university to obtain mathematics and engineering degree without them being held back by the need to fulfil traditional role is at least visionary.
In the face of these limitations, the authorities began to realise that the talent pool of Americans extended well beyond the dominant white ruling class and over time created environments for African-Americans to deploy their expertise to the advancement of research, science and technology of their country was the other story that was not as widely reported as the civil rights movement.
Invariably, we cannot all be activists, some have to join the protests and others in their own little way by what they know and what they do are busily pulling down walls and breaking through ceilings out of the recognition of the talents they have that cannot be denied.
When opportunity came
These African-American ladies with mathematics degrees teaching in racially segregated schools from the 1940s gained employment at a number of agencies that predated and morphed into NASA. At the West Area Computers, an all-African-American group of female mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan became supervisor and with the advent of electronic computers ready to replaced them in their jobs, Dorothy Vaughan pre-empted obsolescence by teaching herself and her staff how to program in FORTRAN and took her team to become the operators of the new IBM computer acquired by NASA. [Dorothy Vaughan – NASA]
This to me was a classic case of someone refused to resign to the onslaught of the machine, but having the foresight to retrain and reskill to take advantage of changes in technology and opportunities.
Mary Jackson went from being a mathematician to being an aeronautical engineer, discovered early for her aptitude, she was co-opted to work with Kazimierz Czarnecki on wind tunnel dynamics and analysis, important for the design of space-going vehicles. To gain an engineering qualification she took her case to court and in a one-on-one conversation with the judge at the bench she made a discussion of firsts to earn the opportunity to attend evening classes and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer. [Mary Jackson – NASA]
When recognition came
Katherine Goble Johnson would have been the main focus of Hidden Figures, but she was not only going to take the glory for herself and ensured that recognition was made of other trailblazers like her who were instrumental to the Americans eventually winning the space race.
She was known as the “Human Computer” whose computational analysis of celestial navigation was of the standard that for the first manned flight into space by John Glenn, he asked for her by name to go over the computer calculations and verify them before taking the flight. He placed his confidence and ultimately the anticipated success of the mission in her.
She suffered bereavement early in her career, with her first husband dying from a brain tumour and leaving her to raise three children. She faced discrimination and belittlement from race and gender perspectives which through the sheer force of both her personality and ability she overcame to the point that she could only be revered and respected.
In recognition of her pioneering work and 33 years of service at the Langley Research Centre, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Barack Obama at the age of 97 and in 2016 the NASA new computer research laboratory was named Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility.
The little events that presage great change
In the film, that lack of coloured toilet facilities in the block where she worked meant she had to take 40-minute toilet breaks to use the segregated toilet over half-a-mile away, the realisation of this situation led to the complete desegregation of the NASA facilities. It became evident that the customs of barring coloureds and women from certain crucial meetings to do with the space race was untenable if progress was to be made. [Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson – NASA]
Margot Lee Shetterly, wrote the book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016), whilst she was writing the book, she secured rights for making the book into a film and the film was released just a few months after the book was published to rave reviews.
Like I wrote at the beginning of this blog, these are stories that need to be told about ability, opportunity, life, challenges, successes, recognition and posterity. Telling these stories show us that in the face of great opposition in the social, cultural and traditional space, there is amazing human ingenuity to rise above all obstacles and thrive.
It takes the preparation of the individual through experience, education and belief to seize the opportunity when it comes, great self-esteem when contemned and the support of the certain powerful individuals to bring about lasting change. When those elements connect, history is made.
Hidden Figures is history that needs to be heralded everywhere and I am glad for the opportunity to witness this uplifting tale of triumph amid what for many is the impossible.

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