My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Hidden Figures is a true account of a group of black American mathematicians ( I won’t use ‘African Americans’ because the book doesn’t discuss their ethnic heritage so it would be wrong to assume ) who provided substantial contributions to the advancements made by US of A in aircraft tech and space research between 1940s to 1970s. It follows the lives of 3 mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who were “computers” with NACA ( now NASA) called so because they used pencils, slide rules and computing tables to perform complex calculations that would help the engineers model or modify aircraft tech.
It begins in an America which was still shackled by “equal but separate ” adage, which wasn’t true factually speaking. Separate schools, separate bathrooms and separate sections in cafeterias just scratch the surface of the discrimination that was on rampart. The bigger problem was white folks calcified and calloused attitude to this discrimination. The Black schools lacked severely infrastructure and facilities. Even qualified black graduates could not apply to most of the positions in the civil service or private sector, definitely not the white collared ones. A lot of beaches and resorts were out of bounds for them, even the well to do populations, even the ones with the means to pay for them. They were declined services almost in all such places. The Great Depression that followed WW II was a creak, a tiny opening in the door, for these well qualified, highly deserving women, the who, until then, had to be satisfied with underpaying teaching jobs and such. However, it did set the tone for more opportunities in the days to come. Each of these women came from a background, no different than you and me, and grew up instilled with values, self esteem and a thirst to prove themselves and reliance on work hard. One of my favourite quotes from the book is something young Katherine Goble’s father taught each of his children:
You are no better than anyone else, and no one is better than you.
This is one of the things that I really liked about the book. I didn’t feel fully immersed in the book from page one, but it grew on me. The tone is modest, neither deprecating nor gloating. The narrative style of the book is interesting, not overtly dramatised and yet not strictly factual or boring. While we have been exposed to a plenty of movies and books on the subject of segregation and racial discrimination in those days, this book is different because while it approaches this topic in a place where, ironically, some of the most cutting edge scientific research takes place. It’s one thing to read about it when it is set up in the dining rooms and kitchens of the rich and the wealthy, but it is different to look at it from the desks of some of the brightest minds of the time. Executive Orders by Roosevelt issued during the War to desegregate the defensive industry opened up a sea of opportunities for these talented women, but it was a long time before they could unlock their full potential. And yet, snubs and rebuffs were an everyday thing. A lot of Americans weren’t explicitly rude or insulting, most of them were complicit even without realising it. Some women protested against this in a explicitly way while some of them dealt with a bit more subtly. When a white colleague refused to occupy a desk next to her and walks away without a word, Katherine Johnson decides that these devils are her own and she deals with them by banishing them away from her mind. Meanwhile, Mary Jackson has to take a more explicit way of petitioning the city to allow her access to the engineering college which would allow her to qualify as an engineer and progress in her career. None of them wallows in self pity or cribs about it, and what I appreciate the most is the fact that they meet the challenges head on. The equipoise they displayed at every situation in life is commendable.
A few things before I hand out my recommendation though. The book is choc-a-bloc packed with technical jargon and science “stuff”. The book screams its demand for patience from chapter one. In spite of my STEM educational background, I must admit I struggled. Aircraft flight terminology and names of parts get thrown in every now and then, So, it is not an easy book to read. Also, I am not sure it will appeal to everybody. It’s certainly not something everyone would look forward to reading at the end of a long tiring day. While the chronology of events is well maintained, characters are introduced a bit erratically and the POVs get a little mixed up. Its not the regular novella/autobiography kind of unravelling of plot. It’s not the regular “goose bumps inducing” type either. Don’t expect to emotionally connect with the characters like you would when reading the works of fiction, and you should be fine. The purpose of this book doesn’t seem to be to elicit an emotional connect, it feels rather informative instead. Not meaning to sound like a book snob ( I hardly qualify as one ), but one really has to be the discerning type to enjoy this book. However, it is full of matter that will make you think. In my humble opinion, it is a book that demands to be heard.
Just as an example, after reading the book, I believe that the Cold Wars with the Russians sent the US top brass into panic and provided a strong impetus to the racial integration activism. It was the mix of frenzy, suspicion and wonderment that surrounded the launch of Sputnik that jolted America into the reality that while the world was making progress, they were denying a huge portion of their deserving population a chance to acquire skill and join the talent pool that the country needs. One of the quotes from the Chicago Defender goes like this in the book.
While we were forming mobs to drive an Autherine Lucy ( the black woman who integrated the campus of University of Alabama in 1956 ) from an Alabama Campus, the Russians were compelling ALL children to attend the best possible schools. Until the United States cured Mississippiitis – that disease of segregation, violence and oppression that plagued America like a chronic bout of consumption, it would never merit the position of world leadership.
Now, the book was made into a motion picture of the same name in 2016. The movie’s plot has been modified a little to accommodate it into a regular duration movie, but still, it retains the essence of the book. Some of the events are recreated slightly differently and its more dramatic and impactful than the book. A top notch performances by the cast makes it a delightful watch. But, the book is more enlightening and the quotes, facts, events and trivia are more frequent and the scope of discussion wider. Even if you think that the book isn’t for you, I would still recommend watching the movie at the very least.