The recent release of 20th Century Fox’s “Hidden Figures” marks an important time in our national history and presents an interesting opportunity for the Black Art Depot community. As evident in our tagline, we pride ourselves on being the go-to source for news about African American art and aim to give our readers thought-provoking, conversation-triggering articles about Black history and Black culture. While exploring the artistic value of “Hidden Figures” is clearly in our wheelhouse, in this article and beyond, we want to take it a step further and highlight another, possibly less-obvious overlap: the intrinsic alignment of art and science.
Highlighted by the STEAM movement – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics – the importance of actively applying art and design in the sciences has been recognized as a fertile basis for enhanced and wider-reaching innovation. Said in another way, a more deliberate mix of art and science is increasingly considered as an important step toward advancing the kind of knowledge and discovery that keeps the United States competitive globally. With that in mind, the Black Art Depot stands at an intriguing nexus of culture, art, history, and the Black experience. Quite naturally, we’re in a position to pick up STEAM and we’re excited to integrate more targeted discussions of science into this forum.
In celebration of STEAM and the critical acclaim of “Hidden Figures”, we will begin a series on African-American women who have contributed to important developments in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). In this inaugural post, we will delve into historical aspects of the film “Hidden Figures” and the three dynamic mathematicians it chronicles: Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. So, with that, let’s begin!
Our First Feature – Hidden Figures
Starting in the mid 1950’s and lasting well into the 1980’s, the United States and the (then) Soviet Union were in the throes of a highly competitive Space Race. The goal for both sides was quite lofty – establish technical and intellectual preeminence by realizing one of the most fascinating prospects of the time: sending manned and unmanned aircraft into the final frontier, space. Very early-on in the contest, the Soviet Union appeared to have the upper hand and, ultimately, the best chance at dominance. In 1961, the Soviets were credited as the first to successfully send a human into space. As time marched on, the United States ran the unconscionable risk of slipping behind.
Tasked with the gargantuan responsibility of keeping our nation competitive in the Space Race, NASA – or, as it was known then, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – had a significant hurdle to overcome. The traditional, predominantly male, and mostly white talent pool was not large enough to adequately sustain efforts to surpass our adversaries. Much like with the Civil War, the United States reluctantly realized that – in order to achieve victory – a significantly more diverse pool of talent would need to be tapped and invited to contribute.
After a series of efforts, including fair-hiring legislation (1941) and better recruitment of underrepresented people, NASA hired Vaughn, Jackson, and Johnson in 1943, 1951, and 1953 respectively, to serve at its Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now known at the Langley Research Center) in Southeast Virginia. Supervised by Vaughn, Jackson and Johnson would go on to be instrumental in calculating aircraft start coordinates and flight paths for NASA’s most important missions including the very first manned flight to the moon, Apollo 11.
The title of the movie, “Hidden Figures” alludes to the fact that – despite how critical their mathematical and intellectual capabilities were to the safety and success of NASA missions – these incredibly gifted and hard-working women never earned the same glory that their white, male colleagues did. In a sense, the fruits of their labor were in full view but their existence was strategically hidden from the public-at-large. Even worse, in their early days at NASA, Vaughn, Jackson and Johnson worked in the segregated West Area part of campus, had substandard working conditions – including lunchroom seating and restrooms –, and endured blatantly racist and sexist attitudes in service to their country.
It is remarkable to note, Vaughn, Jackson and Johnson shared some very interesting characteristics. All three were products of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with degrees in mathematical and physical sciences. All three taught school, at some point, before they were hired at NASA. Lastly, all three were members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Given the laws that perpetuated and sustained segregation when our heroines were young women, it is not a surprise that they all went to HBCUs. Yet, even today, Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) still produce an uneven, outsized share of the nation’s underrepresented STEM talent. According to a memo released by the National Science Foundation , although HBCUs are only 2.2% of American Institutions of higher education, they confer 40% of all Science, Technology, and Mathematics degrees and 60% of all Engineering degrees earned by black students. It’s fascinating how, even after many years and several strides in the right direction, some things remain the same.
Before “Hidden Figures” was a motion picture, it was a book written by Margot Lee Shetterly. With a father who, himself, was a researcher at NASA, Shetterly came up in a community and social circle full of African American STEM professionals. Although Shetterly personally knew Vaughn, Jackson and Johnson, she didn’t come to understand the nature or gravity of their work until many, many years later. Recognizing how important their contributions were to the history and prominence of this nation Shetterly was inspired to write the book. Her efforts have enabled Vaughn, Jackson and Johnson to be hidden no more and provided a platform for the rest of the world to learn more about them.
The women of “Hidden Figures” provide an organic, apropos start to our STEAM coverage over the coming months. Throughout this series, our goal will be to keep the discussion going about black female scientists and widen the scope of that discussion to include an expansive, vibrant group of captivating women. We’ll close by inviting you to suggest African-American women in STEM you think should be celebrated in this forum. Perhaps “Hidden Figures” encouraged you to do some exploration on your own and you came across a gem or, maybe even, a whole host of them. Please share any ideas you have about who we should feature and let us know why you find them interesting – you might just get a shout-out. We look forward to your feedback!
Interested in Black History? Enjoyed the article you just read? If so you may be interested in our Bi-Weekly newsletter entitled The Black History Blitz. Black History Happens Everyday and this is where we share that information with you.