downloadby The Spark

Before electronic computers, and multifunctioning calculators, there were human computers. Black and white women mathematicians were tasked with turning numbers into meaningful data for NASA. Their calculations made possible many ground-breaking missions. These calculations, done by hand, with pencil and paper, often took more than a week to complete, filling six to eight notebooks with data and formulas.

Hidden Figures follows three black women “computers”: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) – and their work at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in the ‘60s.

All three of these women were brilliant mathematicians living and working in segregated and sexist Virginia. The film gives a sense of the indignities and humiliations these women endured. At one point Katherine Johnson is sent to a new department to calculate the trajectories for Alan Shepard’s space flight. The men – all white – were not warm and welcoming toward her in the least.

In another scene she has to explain to her boss, in front of the whole department, why she is gone from her desk 40 minutes every day. She had been running over half a mile to use the “Colored Only” bathroom. He ends that nonsense in dramatic fashion. In the middle of losing the space race to the Russians at every turn, there was simply no time for this kind of racism.

While the film puts in some historical context with the Civil Rights movement running in the background, it does not deal with the white women computers – except to show that they are segregated from the black women computers. While the white women did not have to deal with racism, they were also underpaid and disrespected. Later, when men entered the field of computer programming, pay and prestige skyrocketed despite the fact that most programmers today could not perform the calculations by hand that these women were doing.

This film is interesting on so many levels, social, historical, and political. But, also for young girls, this film shows the big, fat lie that girls are not as smart as boys, that girls can’t do math. In fact, without these brilliant black female minds, Alan Shepard wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, John Glenn wouldn’t have orbited earth and Apollo 13 might not have made it back to earth safely.

The above piece is taken from the US Marxist fortnight, The Spark, here.

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