Before “computer” came to mean a sophisticated calculating machine, it meant a person: someone with a firm grasp of numbers and their myriad practical applications in the real world. In the 1940s, as the U.S. rapidly expanded its flight program to fight the Axis Powers, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia tapped into a new source of computing power: a group of whip-smart, highly educated African American women. For the next two decades, the “colored computers” applied their mathematical knowledge to solve problems of flight at Langley, first in aviation and eventually in the space race. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the previously unknown story of these women in her first nonfiction book, Hidden Figures. The daughter of a NASA engineer, Shetterly grew up believing that math and science careers were simply a smart choice for black people. But for Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and many other women, the computing pool at Langley offered a chance to break out of traditional “black jobs” such as nursing and housekeeping, and into a new world. Spending their days working alongside top-notch engineers and helping launch airplanes (and later rockets) into flight was intoxicating, but they still had to fight for every bit of recognition they received. Shetterly interweaves their stories with the fraught narrative of racial and gender politics in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. Sixty years after the narrative of Hidden Figures begins, we are living in fraught times here in the U.S. Many voices are calling for respect, equality and civil discourse while other voices–which often seem louder–are trumpeting hatred, bigotry and violence. I don’t always know how best to add my own (white, privileged) voice to the chorus of the former. But I believe that listening to, and helping tell, the stories of people whose experiences are different from my own is a vital first step. Drawing on extensive oral interviews and other records, Shetterly brings her characters to vivid life, highlighting both their pioneering mathematical work and their struggles to be taken seriously as professionals. Meticulous research + engaging writing + fantastic real-life characters = a brilliant launch.
NB: Parts of this review originally appeared in the e-newsletter Shelf Awareness for Readers, where I am part of the review team. I received an advance copy of Hidden Figures and chose to review it both for Shelf Awareness and for this site.