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The ‘Hidden Figures’ Jeff Sessions Wants to Keep in the Shadows

Posted on Jan 12, 2017

By Bill Moyers / Moyers & Company

  A scene from “Hidden Figures.” (Screen shot via YouTube / 20th Century Fox)

As the Senate hearings for Jeff Sessions’ nomination as attorney general ran into their second day, I kept thinking about the movie “Hidden Figures,” which my wife Judith and I saw three days earlier. The film is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly about three African-American women in the early 1960s who lived in the segregated South while working on NASA’s first manned space missions.

These women were educated engineers and mathematicians — one a prodigy with an extraordinary capacity for calculating numbers and theorems in her head. When astronaut John Glenn prepared to become the first American to orbit the Earth, calculations for his re-entry into the atmosphere require an urgent adjustment. Glenn knows whom to ask for: “the smart one,” he says of Katherine Johnson, played in the movie by Taraji P. Henson. Sure enough, she gets it exactly right — in the film just as she did in real life.

Yet for all her skill and talent — for all her genius — Johnson and the other black women are routinely subjected to humiliation and insults, to the condescension and cruelty that were the common lot of black Americans when “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs — and burly state troopers enforcing Jim Crow laws — maintained strict segregation between the races.

Despite several white restrooms in the NASA control center where she works, whenever nature calls Johnson has to run half a mile to the colored bathroom in another building. She is the only black and the sole woman among an all-white team who will not even allow her to share the coffee machine. When she is called out for taking such lengthy breaks, her suppressed anguish at the second-class treatment suddenly erupts. You can feel her pain — and then the shame of her boss, played by Kevin Costner.

While her friend Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) oversees 30 or more black “computers,” as the women officially were identified, she is consistently and rudely denied the title and pay of white supervisors. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), the third woman, is barred from attending engineering courses at the town’s all-white school until a judge reluctantly agrees she can attend — the night class. Somehow these three survived the malice, meanness and pervasive oppression of everyday life to carry on successful lives with dignity intact.

Washington, DC in the mid-’60s glowed with pride over America’s besting of the Soviets up in the heavens, and there I got to know NASA Administrator Jim Webb. I attended meetings on space policy over which he presided, shared in moments of celebration at the agency’s successes and relished his boisterous remembrances of the first thrilling but precarious days of the space program. I never heard these women mentioned. There were no shout-outs to them, no newspaper features, no official recognition. They were swallowed back into anonymity and invisibility — into the suffocating holding pen that was American apartheid.

The civil rights movement was then beginning to gain force, a power that would bring change, and at the end of “Hidden Figures,” we see photographs of the real women and learn they finally earned recognition through intelligence, skill and hard work. As we left the theater we saw tear-stained faces throughout the auditorium, and we ran into several friends who had unabashedly wept both in joy for the three women and their “ultimate triumph,” as one said, and in sadness at “the long neglect through which they had to pass.”

I thought again of those photographs later that evening during the Golden Globe Awards, when Tracee Ellis Ross of the TV series “Black-ish” dedicated her award “for all of the women, women of color and colorful people, whose stories, ideas, thoughts are not always considered worthy, and valid and important. But I want you to know that I see you. We see you.”

Finally.

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