2019 Selection: Hidden Figures
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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race tells the story of three African-American women who worked as computers to solve problems for engineers and others at NASA. For the first years of their careers, the workplace was segregated; women were kept in the background as human computers. Author Margot Lee Shetterly’s father was a research scientist at NASA who worked with many of the book’s main characters.
The book explains how these three historical women overcame discrimination and racial segregation to become three American achievers in mathematics, scientific and engineering history. The main character, Katherine Johnson, calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. Johnson successfully “took matters into her own hands” by being assertive with her supervisor.1 When her mathematical abilities were recognized, Katherine Johnson was allowed into all-male meetings at NASA.
The book reached number one on The New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers list, and won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction in 2017. The book was adapted as a film by the same name, released in 2016, that was nominated for three Oscars, and received numerous other awards.
About the Author
The daughter of a NASA engineer, Margot Lee Shetterly is an independent scholar and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation award recipient, currently at work on The Human Computer Project, a digital archive of the stories of NASA’s female Human Computers.
She is one of the founders of Inside Mexico Magazine, an English-language magazine for Mexico’s expat population, and in her former lives worked as an Internet executive and an investment banker. Shetterly received a 2014 Book Grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for her book Hidden Figures. This first nonfiction work went on to win the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Shetterly has received two grants from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities for her work on The Human Computer Project. She also won the 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Nonfiction.
On May 12, 2018, Shetterly was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute at its 150th Commencement exercises.
She splits her time between Hampton, Virginia and Valle de Bravo, Mexico.
- What is the significance of the title? Would you have given the book a different title? If so, what would you choose?
- In advocating for herself to work on the Mercury capsule launch, Katherine says to her bosses, “Tell me where you want the man to land, and I’ll tell you where to send him up.” How are the women in Hidden Figures able to express confidence in their work and abilities? In what ways is that confidence validated by their coworkers? Why is this emotional experience such an important part of their story?
- In what ways does the race for space parallel the civil rights movement? What kinds of freedoms does each explore?
- Would you consider NACA and MASA socially progressive institutions for their time? Why or why not?
- From where did Katherine watch the moon landing? Why is the location and people she was with significant? Were you surprised to learn that’s where she was? What kind of accomplishment was it for Katherine and the workers of Langley for the Eagle to land safely during the Apollo mission on the surface of the moon?
- Is it surprising to learn that on the east side of Langley’s campus, white laboratory staff did not know that an all-black computing group existed? Why or why not?
- How does Mary embody and enact her family’s motto of “sharing and caring”?
- What kind of technological advancements occur as this space race begins to heat up?
- Why did some people think the space program was a waste of money? Do you agree with their argument?
- What surprised you most about the book? What scene(s) resonated most with your personally in either a positive or negative way? Why?