Friday, February 3, 2017

Hidden Figures

Book: Hidden Figures
Basic Information : Synopsis : Thoughts : Evaluation : Book Group : New Words : Book References :
: Table of Contents : References

Basic Information:
 Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Edition: eBook on a Nook
Read:February 3, 2017
289 pages
Genre:  History,  Biography, Science
Rated:   out of 5

Why were black women even present at Langley field? There was a need during World War II for people who could work numbers. As there was a number of unemployed black females, the people at Langley were interested in getting help, no matter what the source.

These women proved to be talented and showed that black women were an underutilized resource. The books talks about some of the segregation these women encountered, along with the presidential orders which allowed them to work.

Once the war ended, the question became, what do you do with these women? The Cold War started soon after, with its accompanying need for smart, mathematically inclined personnel. Then the space program.

The book follows the stories of several of these women through the years, showing what they accomplished, their struggles and their successes.


The author was raised in Hamptom where Langley was. Shetterly notes that when she was growing up that the face of science was brown. Interesting that to me this would not be how I would picture science. But that is more of my problem. But it would be sort of interesting that our perspective, no matter what we are, is shaped by our upbringing. It is up to us to change our perspective to match reality.

A door opens
Shetterly notes that civil rights are linked to economic rights. This is a modern observation, not that it is a wrong it. It is just putting things into perspective.

It is observed that NACA, the forerunning was all about practical solutions.

Ideals without practical solutions were empty promises. Some politicians could use this line.

The double V

The blacks during World War II were asking themselves the question: Is the kind of America I know worth defending? This is a question which each generation should ask. It is a question which is needs to be asked today.  Shetterly notes that it was their own pride, their patriotism, their deep and abiding belief in the possibility of democracy that inspired the Negro people. It is the hope for something better which drives us to continue even if we are struggling now. Take away hope and you end progress. But Shetterly also notes that it was a failure to secure the promises of democracy is what defines the black habitation in this country.


Katherine Globe/Johnson treated her male engineers as equals to her in there curiosity and intellect.

What a difference a day makes

Ideas is what drive people to do great things. Dorothy figures out in our to be part of the party (this is the Mercury Project and the question was how to do it.), she needs to be where the ideas are created. That is when the engineers get together and go through problems, she needed to get in there. But females were not allowed. Dorothy pretty much got in because she was persistant. That is what will make or break you as a person who gets to be part of the party.

I had never correlated the demise of the Jim Crow laws with the Russians threat of Sputnik. The US needed the type of war drive it got during World War II. This allowed blacks to serve, to work and build up resumes which were impressive. The Russians did the same thing during peaceful times.

Outer space
This is the one place which Shetterly approaches a Chestertonish type of phrase. They had to get over the high hurdle of low expectation. This is so true. You get what you expect.

Model behavior
black people frequently disqualified themselves. Shetterly notes this that they would not be competitive because that is what they were brought up with. A black is not as smart as a white, a black is not capable. If anything in this book is a point, it is that blacks can do anything that a white can do. The other point is that anybody needs to have realistic understanding of their own capabilities and act on it. Either increase their capabilities where they are weak, or capitalize on their strengths.

She earned her engineering title through hard work, talent and drive,...
I am not sure there is anything special in this statement. Unless you are given a title because they are mistaken or do not know any better, that is the usual course for promotion.
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Out of the past, the future
  • America is for everybody
  • To boldly go.

The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies. In others words, we were seeing a continuing phenomenon. If there was a few black women who could do this work, that would say NACA/NASA was getting the cream of the crop. But there was many of these people who did the work, This would cause a change in policy.

As much as Katherine Johnson’s technical brilliance, it’s her personal story and her character that shine on us like a beacon. I suspect that in many cases the person who uses their abilities to a great extent at work also is a person who will go the extra mile outside of work. They will be involved in many things, gathering fulfillment from those outlets in the community.

The women seem to be happy doing that, so that’s just what they do. This is the quote from when Christine Darden asked her boss, why she was not getting put into the engineering pools/groups. This speaks more to his frame of reference than to an innate prejudice. Once this was brought up she was promoted. In many ways this is a common occurrence with supervisors. It is assumed that those who want something will make their desires known. In some ways, a supervisor is in an awkward position. If he promotes someone who does not want it, that leads to dissatisfaction. If the person remains silent, but does want the promotion, how does the supervisor know? The way is for the supervisor to know their people. But that at times is hard to do when staff wants to keep their distance.

Christine had already done the work; Langley just needed someone who could help it see the hidden figures. This is in reference that Christine Darden had been a very good worker and was bumping against a dual ceiling based upon race and gender. Once Gloria Champine assembled the data that others with similar background and achievement had gotten promotions, then Darden was recognized and promoted.

The question which I keep coming up with is, is the reason for lack of promotion due to gender and race, or because others have a better sense of promotion? I am reading another book called Quiet! The Power of Introverts. In there it talked about how introverts do not tend to be noticed, consequently, they are not promoted.  Is this a similar phenomena with females and African-Americans? (On the African-Americans, that may not be totally true.) What I have noticed in fields such as programming and mathematics, many of the people in those fields tend to be more content to let their work speak for them rather than being self-promoting. This is not 100% true. There are some people when I was a supervisor which in retrospect should have gotten promoted but they were not self-promoting.

A sister(cousin?) installation to Langley was Ames Labs at Moffett Field. This is close to where I grew up at and have visited it some in my youth.

Samuel P Langley is talked about in the book The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. He did do a heavier than air structure. But they kept crashing

The Langston Hughes poem, Harlem I think encapsulates what the author is trying to say:
What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

  • Gloria Rhodes Champine
  • Katherine Johnson
  • Ed Dwight
  • Christine Darden

I suspect this book will elicit different views depending on what your experience has been. If you see a lot of decisions based upon a person's outward features, even if it is subconscious, you will be offended by what these women went through. If it was something which you recognize that a person has to work to be recognized, then you might be more willing to see how the story plays out. Even with the later, you also see that these women would not have been given the opportunity without World War II and the labor shortages.

The book is about the black women who staffed the Langley NACA/NASA center starting during World War II. First what part they played in the aeronotic development of planes during this war. Then later on, how they were used to get an American into space and eventually to the moon.

Shetterly falls into this story from a standpoint of personal interest. She grew up with these women without realizing their struggles nor their importance. I do not know why, but I do not get the feeling of personal tie-in with which the author should have in the story. After reading their histories I know their accomplishments, but not them.  I am also left with questions of, is their a tie-in with these women and the civil rights movement of the 60's? Or are these women isolated?

All in all, I am glad I read the book, just wished the stories would have been told better, deeper than an 8th grade history book.

Notes from my book group:

Questions for my book group:
Many of you were interested in reading this book. What were you hoping to get out of it? Did it meat your expectations?

Why did the author write this book? From what perspective did Shetterly write this book from? If this was told by a white, or a male or an older person, how would it have changed the book?

Is the title, Hidden Figures, a good title for this book? What would have been a better one?

Where does the author get her information from?

In the prologue, the author says that when she was growing up, the face of science was brown. How so? How does our own perception guide our focus? Later on Shetterly says, They had to get over the high hurdle of low expectation.

The NACA was all about practical solutions. What strengths and weaknesses does this focus have? How are we focused today and how does this focus shape what our future will be like? The author also note that : Ideals without practical solutions were empty promises .

It seems like each generation asks the same question which the blacks asked at the start of WWII: Is the kind of America I know worth defending? How did the blacks of that generation work through this question? What is our response to that question today?

If there was not prejudice, would everyone rise to their levels of competency in our society? If not, what other factors are involved? If so, in what ways does our society inhibit this ascension? Dorothy got into the engineering group because of her persistence. How much of your own determination makes a difference about how far you get?

Are you satisfied with this book? What did you want to see more of? Less of?

Describe the culture talked about in the book.
  • How is the culture described in this book different than where we live?
  • What economic or political situations are described?
  • Does the author examine economics and politics, family traditions, the arts, religious beliefs, language or food?

What thoughts came out of this book which will be useful to you?

Is this a change the world book? What implications are there from this book? Is there situation in our country which needs to be recorded like this? To be changed? What ideas are there which are controversial to our ears today?

What was memorable from this book? Talk about specific passages that struck you as significant—or interesting, profound, amusing, illuminating, disturbing, sad...?

New Words:
  • eponymous (chp Prologue):  giving their name to something or named after a particular person.
  • shibboleth (chp A door opens):  a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.
  • anodyne (chp Manifest Destiny): not likely to provoke dissent or offense; inoffensive, often deliberately so.
  • Schlieren photograph (chp Model behavior): a visual process that is used to photograph the flow of fluids of varying density
  • pericynthion altitudes (chp America is for everybody): As used in the space program, this refers not to the orbit of the Moon about the Earth, but to orbits by various manned or unmanned spacecraft around the Moon. The altitude at apoapsis (point farthest from the surface) for a lunar orbit is known as apolune, apocynthion or aposelene, while the periapsis (point closest to the surface) is known as perilune, pericynthion or periselene, from names or epithets of the moon goddess.
  • grise (chp Epilogue):  a powerful decision-maker or adviser who operates "behind the scenes" or in a non-public or unofficial capacity
Book References:
  • W.E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk
  • Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: “Mrs. Land worked as a computer out at Langley.”my father said.
  • Last Line:  The greatest part of her legacy-Christine Darden and the generation of younger women who were standing on the shoulders of the West Computers-was still in the office.
  • Ideals without practical solutions were empty promises. Chp Mobilization
  • Present your case, build it, sell it so they believe it. Chp Outer Space 
  • the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again. Chp  Model Behavior
Table of Contents:
  • A door opens
  • Mobilization
  • Past is prologue
  • The double V
  • Manifest destiny
  • War birds
  • The duration
  • Those who move forward
  • Breaking barriers
  • Home by the sea
  • The area rule
  • Serendipity
  • Turbulence
  • Angle of attack
  • Young, gifted, and black
  • What a difference a day makes
  • Outer space
  • With all deliberate speed
  • Model behavior
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Out of the past, the future
  • America is for everybody
  • To boldly go.


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