Friday, November 12, 2021

"Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly--Nonfiction Review

We're doing another space book, Obscurists. Well, sort of, it is more a history of NASA and some of the most talented women to ever work there whose contributions were sadly mostly forgotten until recently. Today's book is "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Margot Lee Shetterly

What I love about this book:

So I'm a big lover of all things space—I'm not so crazy that it's become the playground of billionaires—but still, I love the history of the space race and the ambition and talent that drove NASA forward. I love this book because it shines a light on the contributions of black women who participated, immensely, it turns out, to our success in space.

"Hidden Figures" isn't just a history of NASA's earliest days during the Mercury missions but primarily a biography of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. It shows how all three black women—and more like them—contributed mathematical prowess in the computing departments and engineering expertise in Jackson's case. All of this was at a time when women, in general, were typically discriminated against in the workplace.

Racial prejudice is focused on in far greater intensity in the movie based on this book than the book itself. I'm in no way trying to suggest that it didn't exist back then or that it didn't exist at NASA, and I'm sure these women were faced with that ugly truth. After all, black people don't get to stop being black ever, not for one moment. We should live in a world where color doesn't matter, but that goal has yet to be achieved. 

What I mean is this book reaffirms NASA's core value of excellent research above all else. Any skilled person can describe a good idea or the truth about nature, regardless of uterus status or skin color. That is and always was, most important at NASA. While admitting there were still segregation laws in force at NASA, Katherine Johnson even said that she personally didn't feel it during her time there because the mission was most important at work. I'm paraphrasing from this quote: "... didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job ... and play bridge at lunch." She added: "I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it."

  1.  "Katherine Johnson Interview: NASA's Human CTF Media. 2016. Archived from the original on March 3, 2017. Retrieved March 2, 2017.

What I don't love about this book:

The movie focuses on the racial element of the story pretty hard because it's a reliable story beat to gain audience support—at least a certain non-racist audience—but in doing so, it miss characterizes this book, in my opinion. Sure, generally, the past in the late '50s and the early '60s overall had a more in-your-face sort of race problem. However, telling the story of these women as a way of saying they succeeded despite the old racists at NASA is kind of disingenuous and lazy. NASA was a pretty progressive place back then, maybe not to our standards today, but still, the Mercury missions took place on the tail end of the Jim Crow era. The idea that black people and women, too to boot, were trusted with genuine, hard, and necessary—life or death work was radical for the day. 

So the actual shameful thing—the real no-joke insidious racism—that this book points out is how we just forgot these women, who they were, and what they did. It's insidious because of its banality. Women like Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan were always there up to the modern era. They just weren't given any sort of visibility to the public, in either the media or in popular movies—movies I like which saddens me to no end.

The Hollywood movie is the way that it is, in my opinion, because we like to see the past being somehow less enlightened on this front—across the board—and that we, the wise non-racists, have grown and transcended this problem. Except that's bullshit, and we haven't. We're just much more sensitive to being called out for when we're doing some racist shit. Ignoring the contributions of some, belittling them, denying them representation or just plain apathy toward an ethnic group is, in fact, racist.

Where I am going with this point is that this book's quality that makes it feel like a revelation isn't a good thing as the movie version supposes. It isn't a breath of fresh air, some grand rediscovery—it's a goddamn American tragedy. The idea that we as a society tacitly allowed the perception that NASA employed nothing but exclusively white dudes with pocket protectors from the flight director all the way down to the janitor and no one else—is as tragic as it is wrong.

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Parting thoughts:

So for my parting thoughts, I'd like to shift gears here. Recently, it has become fashionable, we'll say, for some groups of Americans to vocally and stupidly claim that we never landed on the moon—and also that the Earth is flat. I don't know, probably.

This is one of those things like Mr. McConaughey's character in "Interstellar" that instantly gets under my skin and annoys me. On the face of it, not only is it wrong, with nearly every country verifying that our radio signals from the Apollo missions came from the moon. Countries including Russia, who was famously competing with us at the time to do just that. Not only is it a denial of the single greatest technological feat we as Americans have ever accomplished, including the atomic bomb, and that there are literal mirrors on the moon that we still use in experiments today left by the Apollo astronauts. It is a slap in the face of every brilliant American astronaut, scientist, engineer, mathematician, and physicist who sacrificed so much, sometimes their very lives, to accomplish that dream.

This insult typically comes from the same group of people who can't even spell algebra, let alone pass it in high school. So why do they insist on their factually wrong position and that we take their non-expertise as valid? I've meditated on this point for a long time, and I believe the answer is actually quite simple.

They are Americans who hate America.

That is a loaded and admittedly inflammatory statement that requires qualification—which I will provide. More precisely, they hate America as it is, and as it always has been, which is a broad land of immigrants from all corners of the Earth, with different skins, beliefs, religions, and languages cohering together as one society. They do, however, love their imaginary America that they've constructed in their mind. An America that was somehow uniformly white, Christian (whichever brand they subscribed to), and the reason that there are literally any problems whatsoever is that we've gotten away from that.

There is this sick love for conspiracy where there is no conspiracy. Instead of admitting that maybe their lives are mediocre because they are, in fact, mediocre. They've never taken the time or effort to change that about themselves. Instead, they invent cabals of satan worshiping pedophiles that somehow hold back their natural all-white awesome American-ness.

The denial of the moon landing stems from the same poisoned fruit that we couldn't possibly have succeeded at such a challenge because the people who did it weren't pure as defined by some wackjob. The people who did the work, the math, the planning, and took the risks to make it possible were diverse in ethnicity, gender, and religion.

And that has no place in their imaginary America. So it didn't happen.

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