“Hidden Figures is a book about people like you, who answered the call of numbers,” said the author Margot Lee Shetterly, addressing a packed room at the Joint Math Meetings in Atlanta this January. The book, which tells the story about the black women mathematicians who took up positions at Langley Research Center during World War II and eventually went on to make critical contributions to the space race, is a powerful one. Set against the backdrop of Jim Crow era Virginia, at a time when women weren’t allowed to be anything other than human computers and segregation was still a dominating force, these women’s incredible and undeniable talents made them unstoppable.
The film adaptation of Hidden Figures has been a huge success, and glowing reviews continue to pour in all over the internet. Gizmodo praises the beautiful portraits of humanity painted by the characters. ArsTechnica calls it “the perfect space race movie.” The movie even inspired an SNL sketch featuring Leslie Jones, who says “it taught me something I never knew, black women helped astronauts go to space! Why didn’t they teach me that in school?!?” Good question, Leslie. Good question.
There’s something wild to the fact that this story has just been sitting there in our relatively recent history, just waiting to be told. In a world where young women — especially young black women — struggle to identify with the scientists and mathematics of legend, hearing this story has the power to help us change the way we see ourselves.
And given the overwhelming reception of the book and film, its safe to say that we were so ready for this. Perhaps we’ve been ready for it, or maybe there’s just something reassuring about a good math story during this age of uncertainly. Along with a long list of accolades, Hidden Figures is the top grossing oscar nominee of 2017. It actually earned $447 million in the first 24 days.
But I have to be honest, watching this beautiful movie during this very week in February 2017, I couldn’t shake some sad feelings. The movie was a testament to inclusivity and the great scientific achievements we are capable of when we allow everyone to sit at the table. And it was not lost on me that right now our president is stopping people from sitting at the table and grossly undermining so much of the scientific progress that we should rightly be celebrating. Hidden Figures is an incredible story about brilliant people who were on the right side of history. I hope that we can live up to their dream for America.