The Larger Meaning of “Hidden Figures”

My wife and I saw the movie Hidden Figures this weekend. It’s about three Black women who worked for NASA as “computers” at the beginning of the space race between the United States and the then Soviet Union. “Computers” at that time meant “human calculators,” who ran staggering volumes of numbers, formulas and calculations in geometry and calculus to determine the necessary acceleration, deceleration, orbital angles and the thousands of other details that had to be exactly right to risk sending a human into space. For the most part they used adding machines and, though not seen, likely slide rules as well.

Without giving away too much, the movie is a well-crafted piece of story-telling, funny at times, painful to watch at other times, sometimes both at once. If it proves anything, perhaps it shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Having grown up in the segregated 1950s and 1960s in Memphis, Tennessee, there were moments of almost physical pain at seeing graphic reminders of the cruelty and stupidity of the suppression of Black Americans throughout our history.

As bad as slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were for the direct victims, and most of us cannot comprehend how it was to be the constant target of such practices every day of our lives with no hope of change, the larger lesson from this movie is, I believe, the staggering cost to everyone, in the United States and everywhere, of the lost contributions and achievements of which these practices deprived us.  And still do.

In the millions of people directly suppressed by these practices, it is a certainty that there were multitudes of people who would, in other circumstances, have become great scientists, inventors, artists, musicians, athletes, caregivers, writers, teachers and on and on. All of us have lost forever the benefits of the achievements of those people who never had a chance to develop into their individual potentials as human beings. The frightened people of no vision who perpetuated these practices from America’s earliest days even to today in some places have deprived the country and the world of an immeasurable gift.

Now many of those people use the consequences of these practices as the pretext for arguing that young Black males are prone to violence, are uneducated, lazy and shiftless and thus make protection against them as the priority. Imagine the result if the situation were reversed and Black people had been the masters and whites were the slaves and everything else was the same. For an interesting incident to the same effect, see http://bit.ly/2jCAG1X.

We can’t undo history. But we can at least recognize the root causes of the way things are now and thereby be inspired to work to correct what all of us have done. It is no doubt true that many advances have been made and I don’t mean to suggest there has been no progress. But isn’t it self-evident when reading the news that the United States is gravely ill. Complaining on social media or railing at Washington may make for warm feelings but it does not address with action the consequences of our troubled past. If people who can influence change fail to act, how long can our democracy endure?

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