Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What We Never Knew by Diane Burton

I may have mentioned that I belong to a book group, part of an area newcomers’ group. My daughter chose the book for May, Hidden Figures, same as the movie, an account of three African-American women vital to the space program. This weekend, I watched the movie. One question became a blinking sign as I both read the book and watched the movie: why didn’t we know about these women before?
photo credit: IMDB
By now, if you’ve read my posts here, on my own blog, or over at Paranormal Romantics, you know I’m a space fanatic. Like the rest of the world in 1958, I was stunned that Russia had put a satellite in orbit around our planet. I cheered, along with other TV viewers, as Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and when John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. National pride exhibited itself during parades and ceremonies naming schools after the Mercury 7 astronauts. (My younger siblings went to John Glenn High School.) Posters of the astronauts from NASA decorated my classroom bulletin boards.

I never knew what went on behind the scenes to achieve those milestones in space exploration. Frankly, I never thought about the hours/days/years of engineering and computing plus tests (many failed tests) that took place first.

Did you know that women did the computing for the engineers? In fact, the women were called computers. That was long before the machines. Today, we’re so used to the term computer referring to our laptops, desktops, and tablets that calling people computers seems weird.

Did you know that during WWII due to a desperate need, especially for mathematicians and physicists, President Roosevelt desegregated the defense industry? That was long before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

When women like Katherine (Goble) Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson discovered they could earn three times more working at NACA (NASA’s predecessor) than teaching, they jumped on the opportunity and became human computers, “colored” computers. Desegregation only went so far.

Like many in my book group, I found the book boring. Not the content, but the way it was written. How in heaven’s name, I thought as I skimmed, did this book become a movie? It read more like a dry textbook. At our meeting after discussing the content, we watched “the making of” Hidden Figures. Our discussion then went into high gear, centering on why didn’t we know about these women? Why didn’t we know that John Glenn refused to go into space without Katherine Johnson confirming the IBM computations? He trusted her, not a machine, and he was right to do so.

Not very many books-into-movies make me say the movie was better. This one did. If you haven’t already, watch it. Maybe you, too, will ask “why didn’t we know?” Or . . .

What else don’t we know?

Diane Burton combines her love of mystery, adventure, science fiction, and romance into writing romantic fiction. Besides the science fiction romance Switched and Outer Rim series, she is the author of One Red Shoe, a romantic suspense, and the Alex O’Hara PI mysteries. She blogs here on the 30th of each month, on Paranormal Romantics on the 13th, and on her own blog on Mondays.


Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Very interesting Diane!

That movie is on my TBW list and I've often wondered the same thing...how much don't we know about what truly goes on behind the scenes?

Good luck and God's blessings

Vonnie Davis ~ Romance Author said...

Calvin and I loved the movie. I'd gotten him the book for Christmas. Now I know we he rarely picks it up to read a few pages before he falls asleep. As a black man raised during the Jim Crow era, he identified with a lot of the movie. Like having to "hold" until he could run home for lunch because he wasn't allowed to use the restroom at the department store where he worked as a porter and elevator operator. He was a teenager then, working summers. I'm giving away his age, aren't I? But we're right to wonder what's been kept from us. Quite a lot, I think.

Jannine Gallant said...

Those were the good old days when men ruled and women were not encouraged to shine. You know, the way many in this country want it to be again. Good for that author for tackling the subject (despite a lack of writing skill) and someone in Hollywood for noticing. I haven't seen the movie yet. Hopefully it'll be on Netflix soon. Great post!

Mackenzie Crowne said...

Very thought provoking post, Diane. I never read the book, but felt the same way after seeing the movie. It is interesting what we as citizens are fed as news. The achievements of these women were apparently not considered newsworthy by the media powers of the day. The decision makers of that time are long gone from the industry, but their replacements learned at their feet. What else don't we know indeed.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Thanks for a thought provoking post. And yes, Jannine, there are those who would have us go back to those good old days. And yes, Diane, what more don't we know?? I've not gotten to the movies much of late but this is one I want to see.

Brenda Whiteside said...

And a second thought...I doubt anyone outside the government knew about these women. It would've been a huge story and NACA and the gov wouldn't have wanted that to be the story that overshadowed the strides we made in the space program which was a great source of national pride and political power.

Andrea Downing said...

It's hard for us now to think of a time, within our own lifetimes, when, for instance, Vonnie and Calvin could not have been married and lived together in certain states. A few years back I stood in the old slave market in Charleston, my arm around the gentleman who had just sold me his fabulous Goula (spelling??) basket for our photo to be taken-- knowing that on my last visit to Charleston, in the '60s, such closeness would have brought the police. Thank goodness times have changed and we've become more civilized--at least in that respect! Thanks for a terrific post, Diane--the film is coming up on my Netflix list.

Diane Burton said...

Such great comments. Thank you. As I watched the movie (which is out on DVD. In fact, I borrowed my daughter's copy to watch this weekend.) I thought about how this all happened during my lifetime. Since I have always lived in the North, I never saw "colored only" drinking fountains or restrooms. To think that she had to run 1/2 mile to use a restroom boggles my mind. 40 minutes each time. You'd think someone would've done something about that because her "breaks" took so long. As for mixed race couples/marriages, I only saw them in college towns, not the white suburbs where I grew up.

Vonnie, my heart ached for what Calvin went through as a teen.

Pam & Mac, isn't that the way it is with all history? So much is covered up or just ignored.

Jannine, you are so right. One of supervisors refused to allow her name on reports even though she did the work. Yet she persisted. I sure don't want to go back to those days. And I don't want my daughters & granddaughters to either.

Brenda, you nailed it. Talking about the women who enabled our space exploration would've taken away from the awesomeness of the program--or so the men thought. But just think of all the people they inspired.

Andrea, that slave market would've given me the creeps. Yet, another type of slavery still exists. It's well-hidden though.

We can't go back to the "good, old days." If we don't resist, I can see it happening all over again.

Leah St. James said...

Great post, Diane. I live in the same town as Kathryn Johnson, and our paper has been covering her amazing life and accomplishments for some time. But it shouldn't have taken more than five decades for this to be widely known. And yes, it does make you wonder what else we don't know.

I've heard others say the same thing about the book--that it's boring and doesn't come close to the movie. As a writer, I think I'd be crushed to hear that...even if I were raking in the royalties!

Jean Davis said...

Loved this movie. I saw it with my daughter. Wish there was more of a focus on inspirational movies like this than all the remakes of things better left in the past.

Alicia Dean said...

Oh my gosh, fascinating! Sounds like an excellent movie. These women were admirable indeed. Thank you for the enlightening post!

Diane Burton said...

Leah, how lucky you are to have access to all that knowledge. I wondered if you lived in the same town as Katherine when I read about her.

Jean, I agree. My daughter took her kids (7 & 10) to see the movie and had a terrific conversation on the way home. The kids were incensed that people were treated the way they were.

Thanks, Alicia. I hope you get a chance to see the movie. Very inspiring.

Leah St. James said...

For anyone interested in more information, this is a link to a story written about a year ago when NASA Langley renamed its Computational Research Facility after Katherine Johnson.

There's also a cute video of Johnson talking about working with some of the men and how they worked together.

The site has a metered paywall, so you should be able to view up to 10 pages for free.

I also saw a book, "Black Women Scientists in the United States," written by Wini Warren (I think in 1999 or published in 2000). I'll bet she wishes they'd made a movie out of her book!

Margo Hoornstra said...

Fascinating stuff. Just proves we need to be diligent in seeking out these incidents and making sure those who deserve it shine!

Diane Burton said...

Leah, thanks for the link to the news article about Katherine. The video, though hard to understand (probably my computer) revealed her sense of humor. Thanks, too, for the link to the book. Good to know people are writing about the contributions of women scientists.