Hidden Figures: How and Why We Brought it to the 2017 JMM


from Wikipedia

By now, you’re heard of Hidden Figures, a 20th Century Fox biographical drama which follows three African-American women who worked for NASA in the early 1960’s. The movie is based on a book written by Margot Lee Shetterly.  With a complete title of Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, this incredibly-well researched book spans nearly half a century to chronicle the lives of African-Americans in Hampton, Virginia as the United States entered the Space Race.

But the main question I pose today is not “how did they overcome obvious adversity and discrimination to succeed?” but rather “why haven’t I heard about this until now?”

At the Movies

Over the 2016 Winter Break, I was able to take my three African-American nieces to see Hidden Figures for an early screening at my favorite theater, the ArcLight Cinemas Hollywood. I had not read the book, and I was somewhat skeptical whether it would be a good film. (Cookie as a rocket scientist?  Really??)  But I was pleasantly surprised. The movie was better than it should have been.  In fact, the movie is getting rave reviews, and has been nominated for at least 69 awards to date.   Just this past weekend, it won four NAACP Image Awards, and it has a very good chance of winning an Academy Award later this month.

People talk a lot these days about intersectionality, the concept of intersecting social identities. Well Hidden Figures is the epitome of this. Mathematics?  Yes. Gender?  Definitely. Race?  Got it. And humor and romance?  Absolutely.  It is for these reasons that the movie has an appeal to a wide audience, and is providing a safe-space for those who wish to have a conversation about the difficulties of diverse communities attempting to coexist. Yes, this paragraph was written for you, Mitch Daniels.


Dorothy Vaughan (1910 – 2008)

While the movie focuses on three main protagonists for dramatic effect (Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan) and one to appease white guilt (here’s looking at you, Kevin Costner!) the storyline focuses on the power of love to overcome people’s fears and prejudices.  Come to think of it, I could say the same thing about 2014’s Black or White since it also featured Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer

In the 1940’s and 1950’s the precursor to NASA needed human computers to assist with calculations for the burgeoning space program. Men were off to fight the Second World War, so the United States Government needed women to help on this front. Even recent graduates from local historically black colleges and universities were considered for the position. Yes, there were many “colored women” who worked essentially as rocket scientists. And these women helped to do the computations which put the first men in space, and returned them safely home.

My Shero: Dorothy Vaughan

Watching the movie piqued my curiosity, so I decided to read the book.  Shetterly has written an impressive history of the African-American women who worked as human computers in the West Area Computing Unit.  Whereas the movie focuses on the life of Katherine Johnson (played in the movie Taraji P. Henson), the book focuses on the seriously kick-ass Dorothy Vaughan (played in the movie by Octavia Spencer) and the very underrated Christine Darden (who was not featured in the movie at all).

And I’m not just hyped about Vaughan because she’s an Alpha Kappa Alpha like my mom: Vaughan graduated with a B.A. in Mathematics at age 19, married at 22, and started life as a high school math teacher soon thereafter.  Life under Jim Crow convinced Vaughan to create a better life for her kids at all costs.  Aged 33, she moved 140 miles east – without her husband or four kids! – from Farmville, VA to Hampton, VA to take a chance and work for NASA.  Six years later, Vaughan was the supervisor of her group.  She had taught herself how to program on the digital computers, then empowered the others in her group by teaching them how to program too.  Remember that when you see this image from the movie:


20th Century Fox Promotional Photo

Joint Mathematics Meetings Panel Discussion

Why haven’t we heard about these women and these stories before?  And what can we do to make sure these stories get told now?


Ami Radunskaya, Ulrica Wilson, Lily Khadjavi, Christine Darden, Margot Lee Shetterly, Nagambal Shah, Tanya Moore, Sylva Bozeman, Kim Weems, and Edray Goins

I was not the only one who wondered this.  I had the amazing opportunity to work with several women who decided we needed to tell these stories at the largest meeting of mathematicians in the world, the Joint Mathematics Meetings.  Lead largely by Tanya Moore (one of the creators of the Infinite Possibilities Conference), a group consisting of myself (as president of the National Association of Mathematicians), Sylvia Bozeman (as one of the creators of the EDGE Program), Lily Khadjavi (one of the organizers of IPC), Ami Radunskaya (as president-elect of the Association of Women in Mathematics), Nagambal Shah (one of the creators of ASA’s StatFest), Kim Weems (another one of the organizers of IPC) and Ulrica Wilson (as one of the directors of EDGE) decided to host a panel discussion which would serve three purposes:

  1. Feature the author of Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly,
  2. Feature the mathematics of the African-American women at NASA, and
  3. Feature one of the unsung women in the book, Dr. Christine Darden.

With the help of Helen Grundman (AMS Director of Education and Diversity), we held our special panel discussion entitled The Mathematics and Mathematicians Behind Hidden Figures on Wednesday January 4, 2017 at 6:30 PM.  We had planned for maybe 200 people, which meant we weren’t prepared for the kind of reception we got:


The audience at the “HIdden Figures” Panel Discussion


More of the audience at the “Hidden Figures” Panel Discussion


Even more of the audience at the “Hidden Figures” Panel Discussion

No, there wasn’t even standing room!

The panel discussion was an amazing success.  Margot Lee Shetterly told stories of how she grew up in Hampton, Virginia, knowing women such as Katherine Johnson, but not knowing at all about the role she played in helping make John Glenn the first man to orbit the Earth.  Ulrica Wilson gave a mathematics lecture on how the some of the first African-American women engineers at NASA perfected the reduction of noise from sonic booms.  Christine Darden – one of the women featured in the book but not in the movie – spoke about her own experiences in NASA’s Sonic Boom Group.


Margot Lee Shetterly, Christine Darden, and Ulrica Wilson

Visibility and Double Vision

At the end of the evening, a young woman from Spelman College asked the most challenging question of the evening:

“What should I do to make sure I don’t become a Hidden Figure?”

Dr. Darden gave a wonderful answer, suggesting that the young woman follow her dreams, fight for what she thinks is important, and to not let anyone silence her from making a name for herself.  In essence, make yourself visible.

The answer was equally inspiring and heart-breaking.  Yes, empowering young girls is important and necessary, ever more so today.  But are black women really invisible?  I spoke with a friend, an African-American professor of mathematics, who reminded me that, sadly, black women are.  They are everywhere, but often ignored.  This is obvious when you consider the often trivialized debates over whether Serena Williams is the greatest female athlete of all time, discussions over whether Beyonce deserved to win a Grammy for the Best Album of the Year, or reminders that black women are the most educated group in the United States.  Indeed, the face of progressivism in this country is Elizabeth Warren, not Shirley Chisholm.  (Shout outs to those who remember the famous Biz Markie line!)

Margot Lee Shetterly recently gave a talk at Purdue University.  She discussed how we as Americans still have double vision when we see African-American women mathematicians: they are either black or scientists, but not both simultaneously.  Perhaps it’s time we  learn to correct our vision and focus on what’s been right in front of us all along.

Post Scriptum: Anna Haensch has written a nice companion blog entry you may wish to read as well!

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2 Responses to Hidden Figures: How and Why We Brought it to the 2017 JMM

  1. Michelle says:

    Thanks for the great post! I was so sorry to miss the Hidden Figures panel at JMM, but it was announced late and I already had plans.

    I saw the movie on opening weekend and liked it, but I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. The three main characters felt too perfect to me. In movies, white male mathematicians are allowed to be flawed, to be jerks even, and all is forgiven because of genius. But these women… I just found it grating (and unrealistic) how unfailing perfect they were.

    (Note: I don’t blame the actresses. They were all great. But they were asked to portray non-humans. I want to see the movie about mathematician who’s a woman and kind of a pill. Who has maybe anger issues and some resentment about how she’s been treated, and it boils up at inconvenient times. Who cries out of anger and then gets pissed and embarrassed that she’s crying in a professional situation. I want that movie.)

    I’m reading the book now, and enjoying it so much more! These are fully realized humans, and their stories are so much more compelling. It’s history, not hagiography.

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