It is so surreal to have a book out about the same thing as a major motion picture. I just had someone e-mail me a question about one of the women in the movie.
“Just saw Hidden Figures which I LOVED. Wondering what Mary Jackson could do that the white men in the same office couldn’t do? Was she a genius at looking outside the box with math? She must have had something special for her to be invited into those top circles already filled by talented men that they couldn’t do. What was that?“
Hmm. Give birth?
Okay, that’s the smarty pants answer. And truly it was the one I was most comfortable giving for two reasons.
- This is largely a matter of opinion. I’m a whole lot more comfortable with fact.
- I haven’t seen the movie.
But after thinking about it a while I was able to cook up an answer for her. Here is my response:
“I haven’t managed to see the movie yet so I’m not sure how they handled this.
“But the men didn’t do the math. They were engineers. They came up with problems. They tested the problems and generated results. And the female computers crunched the numbers.
“Many of the women who climbed the ranks did so with male advocates. I know that Jackson’s mentor was her boss and I think, I’d have to pull out my notes, that he was male. A bit part of moving up was know what classes to take and what to do to make your qualifications more appealing. Jackson was especially good at telling what might be holding someone back and went on to mentor her coworkers and act as the affirmative action program manager. She was a serious go-getter.”
Phew. That was a tough one. And now I’m wondering if any other authors get letters like this?
As happy as I am about the reception that Hidden Human Computers is getting, some of the comments on social media about our book and the movie Hidden Figures have brought me up short. It isn’t that they are critical but some of them certainly clarify why books written on STEM topics are so essential and why is it so important that these topics be covered in mainstream media.
“Could Hidden Figures make math cool?”
Math doesn’t need to become cool, sugar. Math is already cool.
When Duchess and I set out to write this book, we wanted to tell the story of her grandmother who was among the first black computers NASA hired at Langley. Duchess grew up hearing about her grandmother. Wasn’t that just the kind of job that a grandmother might have if she was mathematically inclined?
For my part, I grew up with a tech-savvy dad who also happened to be a teacher. When he was a kid he told everyone who would listen that he wanted to be George Washington Carver. No, he didn’t pick a prominent white scientist as a model. He picked the most awesome scientist who could name. The fact that Dad was a white kid in small town West Texas telling his teachers that he wanted to be a black scientist didn’t seem to faze anyone. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, Dad took a correspondence course and built a television. I was his willing and able assistant, laying out all the resistors and diodes and other bits and pieces.
As adults, Duchess and I realized that not all girls had been encouraged to pursue math and science. When we wrote this book, we worked hard to make it clear that girls have done math and science for years and years. They did it. Our readers can do it too.
And when cool people like Duchess grandmother do math? It’s cool of course. Nothing has to change but people’s attitudes.
Merry Christmas, Sue and Duchess! Abdo gave us the best Christmas gift ever — our book Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA launched yesterday.
Our book is features the three women in Margot Shetterly’s Hidden Figures but it tells about other women as well, including Duchess’ grandmother Miriam Harris Mann. That’s why Duchess wanted to write the book — she wanted to tell the story of all of the women. And she wanted to tell it for young readers in a way that anchored it into the larger history.
This larger history is vitally important but also too little understood. Most people get that these women faced discrimination because they were black. But they also faced discrimination because they were women. It seems like a no brainer but I was amazed to realize that no one had studied these women. Research on black NASA scientists focused on male engineers. Research on women at NASA focused on women computers but sidelined the black women. In fact, the only place they got equal time was an unpublished manuscript in the NASA library.
In a time when people need to be inspired, this is a story that needed to be told. What an honor to get to work on it. Merry Christmas to me!
It is always a great feeling when readers connect with your work. But it is an even more heady experience when it happens before the book is officially out. Early reviews of Hidden Human Computers, scheduled for release in early 2017, have this to say.
“How often do you see the diagram of a Jim Crow segregated dining room arrangement, in a book about Space and Math? How often do you read a book that discusses Civil Rights and Halley’s Comet; the history of Black Colleges and the history of Human Computing; the evolution of aircraftand the evolution of government hiring policies? How often do educators have one tool that teaches Science, Math, Social Studies and English — with a Black and female lens?” (Annie Winkler-Morey, The Minneapolis Project.)
“It’s told in a way that accepts its readers as smart and capable individuals while also telling a captivating story. At the same time, it doesn’t shame its readers for not knowing the information previously. Harris and Edwards, instead, are pleased and proud to be able to tell the stories of these important women. I very much appreciated the balance in the storytelling.” (Young Minds Need Stories.)
“Thanks to Hidden Human Computers, an emerging generation of thinkers will be able to have an ancestral relationship to the contemporary understanding of the universe. Black women, our literal and imaginary ancestors, were crucial to contemporary space travel, observation and astro-physics.” (The Feminist Wire.)
I am, to put it mildly, just a little jazzed. Fingers crossed that the book is just as well received by our intended audience of young readers!
isn’t coming out but it is already bringing in positive reviews
(find all three)