In higher education these days, there is a much-needed focus on encouraging and supporting girls and women in the STEM fields. The film "Hidden Figures" reminds us why these efforts are so critical - that there is still so much to be done to achieve true parity - and why "turning back the clocks" to a time when women and people of color were even more marginalized would have catastrophic effects on our nation's success.
Hidden Figures is the true, previously untold story of three brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA's Langley Research Center in the early 1960s. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were behind one of the greatest operations in history - the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1961 - all while working in a male dominated and segregated environment.
The film powerfully portrays the repugnant vestiges of Jim Crow in a not so distant American past: separate work areas for Blacks and Whites, water fountains labeled "For Whites Only," segregated bathrooms, lunch rooms and even coffeepots. Also omnipresent were implicit and explicit gender bias and a genuine lack of respect for all women's possibilities. Hidden Figures is also a film about what happens when people come together. It's about sisterhood, love of family, and the power of belief in one's self.
My friend, New York City writer and artist Eva Yaa Asantewaa wrote so eloquently after seeing the film:
"...My heart is full. I'm in my 60s now and grew up in that era and loved the space program. I had spacecraft models that I made - can still remember getting the glue stuck on my hands; I remember the look of the plastic - and I followed every mission on TV. I DID NOT KNOW the history of Black women in this regard - because nobody taught us that - and I must read Shetterly's book "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race."
The film is magnificent (and entertaining). The acting is magnificent. The story is so important. Please, everyone see it. White people, in particular, and I want you to meditate on this: How much YOU have lost due to racism. How YOU have been diminished due to racism. How YOU have been imperiled due to racism. This film teaches these essential lessons. Oh, and yes, you will be entertained even as you contemplate the possibility - no, strike that; the certainty - that, through racism, the white race has pushed aside people that it desperately needs, people it will never get back. The women represented in this film have gone directly to my heart, and I will never, ever forget them."
So, as some assert their desire to make America "great" again by reverting to a time long past and gone, Hidden Figures pulls back the curtain and reminds us of how oppressive those days were for everyone. It was just that not everyone was aware that they, too, were oppressed.
I left the film with many thoughts floating about but want to focus on these two: How many more hidden figures are there whose contributions we do not know about, and whose stories are waiting to be told? And, that if racism, sexism, classism, ageism, all the "isms" were suddenly eradicated - what a wonderful place our world would be.
Make sure that you take and encourage young people you know to see Hidden Figures. This is their story, too - even if they don't know it yet!