Making Hidden Figures Visible

Feb 28, 2017 • by Amma Marfo

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Something hugely important occurred to me as the credits rolled on Hidden Figures, the Theodore Melfi–helmed film based on the equally impeccable book from Margot Lee Shetterly, about the role black female mathematicians played in the Space Race. Through my reading of the book and the runtime of the film, my emotions alternated between awe and choked-up pride. But as the house lights came up, so did a new emotion: anger.

“Why didn't I learn about these women sooner?”

Learning to Build Sites

I ask that question in earnest as a lifelong “blerd” (black nerd, for the unfamiliar), a math and science summer program alum (more on that shortly) and—most shamefully, in my eyes at least—a Space Camp attendee. I lived at Cape Canaveral for a week, learning from camp counselors and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees, and even earning Camper of the Week honors. And yet the names Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson weren't uttered once. These days, the most lasting impression of that week at NASA is a sweatshirt my mom bought big with hopes I'd grow into it. Spoiler alert: I'm a small adult who almost did.

Luckily, that same summer I had a different experience that underscored for me why stories like those in Hidden Figures need to be told more loudly and more often, at that math and science summer camp I mentioned earlier, hosted at the University of South Florida. With my interest in English and history already solidifying, my enrollment and attendance were admittedly reluctant. And while courses on Euclidean geometry, astronomy and environmental science predictably didn't hold my attention, another course did: web design.

Mario Teaches Typing had already made me an adept typist, and I had early exposure to email and the internet thanks to my father's stead as a professor. But it never occurred to me that I could make anything that lived online. Peggy Lim changed that. Energetic and excited about teaching, she was also the first teacher of color I'd had in my eight years of school to that point. Her excitement about what we were learning, and emphasis on letting us use it to do things we liked, got meexcited. And while the learning I did at Space Camp evaporated within a few weeks, along with most of the rest of what I learned that summer from other classes, what we learned with Peggy didn't. I kept building sites, I stayed engaged in coding, and although other languages proved to not be for me, the early lessons of HTML and JavaScript struck me almost as deeply as the woman who taught them to me from the front of the lab.

Encouraging Other Women

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to express my appreciation for Hidden Figures to Octavia Spencer at the press conference for her Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year honor, presented at Harvard University MA. But that moment paled in comparison to another I had in that very room. In the row ahead of me, a young Asian-American woman fidgeted and tried to calm herself down enough to ask a question. After a few false starts, she managed to get herself seen and asked a beautifully insightful question about positioning people of color in studio leadership. When she appeared to have collected herself after her question, I leaned over to touch her shoulder and say, “That was a great question!” She smiled back. I'm committing myself to more of those moments, encouraging female students who may otherwise be overlooked, as the moderator very nearly did with her.

Empowering Women and Gender-Nonconforming People

These moments, be they as big as a blockbuster film or as small as a touch on the shoulder in a bustling room, matter. Having women teach other women matters. Women of color. Transgender women. Disabled women. Gender-nonconforming folx. It matters because in a sea of educators who look alike, students who stand out can find themselves adrift. If you are in the position to empower students or other young women and gender-nonconforming people in your life, know that it will make a difference. Volunteer. Mentor. Sponsor. Pay whatever good fortune you have forward. And don't let it stop there. Where you can, uplift those in groups you “don't belong to.” Recommend them for panels and keynotes, internships and jobs. Share their writing, and pay for it where required.

The language that's often used to describe this kind of altruistic amplification is “giving a voice to the voiceless.” But here's the truth: no one is voiceless. Katherine Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson weren't voiceless. They were simply hidden. And that type of hiding is all too common for the marginalized. By acknowledging the power that comes with being out of hiding, and then creating opportunities to pull more from the shadows, the more impactful stories can be told—and then inspire their much-needed sequels.

—AM

By Amma Marfo
Published: Feb 28, 2017