by Valerie Sweeney Prince
A copy of Hidden Figures just arrived in the mail today. I ordered it when I learned that it was written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the daughter of one of my erstwhile professors at my undergraduate alma mater Hampton University. I’m looking forward to reading it. It’s, of course, the inspiration for the film by the same name. In its opening weekend, the film eked past Rogue One (of the Star Wars juggernaut) at the box office—which is pretty impressive since, according to Forbes.com contributor Scott Mendelson, Rogue One is on track to be the top earning film released in 2016. By 9 January 2017, Hidden Figures had already earned $27.7 million. I’d have to think for while about what else besides top earnings the two films have in common. I guess, in some ways, both films are about outer space—one set in the distant imaginary past, while the other, in the not-so-distant real life present-past.
The title is catchy—hidden figures—suggesting the numbers behind the explosive spectacle of rocket science as well as the segregated unit of African American women who made the precise calculations. The title directs our attention to the individual heroes, who like John Glenn, propelled the United States to the lead in the space race. But just as the title suggests, the deal with heroes is tricky. A lot is hidden behind the heroic figure.
America loves heroic stories (there’s another thing Hidden Figures has in common with Rogue One). However, we would do well to remember that the space race occurs at the same moment when African Americans were becoming increasingly less tolerant of racial constraints. In fact, John Glenn orbits the earth in 1962 and Neil Armstrong walks on the moon in 1969, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. This is to say that the space race occurs at the precise moment when African Americans were taking to the streets to demand social justice and equal access under the law and all the while, receiving considerable push back from the same government that funds what had been imagined as the impossible feat of propelling (white) men into orbit. As Hidden Figures depicts, the image of the heroic Glenn is established by the work of Katherine Johnson and others. The film makes plain that even that gain was not won without the considerable knowledge and skill of African American women.
At the time, many received the mission of a man on the moon as a slap in the face of the Civil Rights Movement. The great nation declared its priorities and those aims were not reconciled with its diverse citizenry.
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about laundry. I wrote a piece about it that I am going to workshop here at Allegheny College with my colleague Beth Watkins. It’s titled Waterbearer and it’s a piece of lyrical prose that slips in and out of places that maybe it shouldn’t go. The point behind the piece is about the work done by the vast majority of African American women who were constrained by a white society intent on pursuing its aims at the expense of so many others.
Maybe that’s why so few stories are told about that work. We think of it as a sign of degradation. And if the story of the black laborer gets told, it’s usually by some sympathetic white people trying to come to terms with their own pasts. Consider William Faulkner and his Dilsey, Margaret Mitchell and her mammy, Alfred Uhry and his Hoke who be driving Miss Daisy where ever she need to go. Or Kathryn Stockett‘s help who mixes shit in chocolate pie.
But people have never been limited to their constraints. The work is more than labor, the laborer more than the labor. There’s knowledge, culture, process, refinement, technology. What happens when the work that we have done for centuries is literally abandoned, maybe because we imagine that Booker T. Washington is a damnable accommodationist or maybe because we think that we should aim to occupy those sites most coveted by those who seek to deny us access? So now we have no infrastructure in place to recoup the benefits of that knowledge. Where is the technology of the shoe shiner or the washer woman or the mammy? Is there no way to envision profit from the accumulated knowledge that offers a return on investment?
It’s wonderful to celebrate women who helped safely put and then returned a man from orbit. I celebrate their genius and am excited that my kids are exposed to a broader range of images than ever before represented on television and film.
Nevertheless, I keep thinking about laundry and that work and those hidden figures.