It’s February, and that means it’s African American History Month. Next month is Women’s History Month. And fitting to both is Hidden Figures, both the book and the movie. Author Margot Lee Shetterly knew two of the women highlighted in her book because her father also worked at Langley. But her husband had never heard of these women—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson nor their contribution to the space race. Shetterly soon realized that most people didn’t know the story, so thankfully she wrote Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.
I had only heard of Katherine Johnson a couple of months earlier in a Timeless episode where the protagonists are trying to save the space program from a villain intent on keeping Apollo 11 from happening. At a critical moment at NASA, the character Rufus has an epiphany and goes to get help from NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson. Johnson, an African American woman, is basically hidden in the basement. She, of course, saves the day for the space program on the small screen as well.
Knowing that the show’s premise of time traveling back into history, I immediately looked up and read about Katherine Johnson. And I wanted to know why I had never heard of her. I had the same reaction years ago when I saw a small picture and placard in a museum years ago. She was the first African American woman to receive a pilot’s license and did it in the early days of aviation in 1921. Why had I not heard of Bessie Coleman?
Bessie Coleman got the idea of learning to fly when her brother came home from WWI talking about foreign female pilots. It lit a fire in her. She wanted to learn to fly. The problem was she couldn’t find anyone to teach her. She had two strikes against her. She was black, and she was female. Did she give up? NO! She learned to speak French, and she saved and raised enough money to get to France. Bessie walked nine miles to and from the airfield everyday to save money. And she finished the 10-month program in 7 months before becoming a licensed pilot. I’m still waiting for a movie on her life.
It would only take me another minute to come up with another dozen women who lived exciting, meaningful lives worthy of retelling. Give me five minutes, and who knows what number I could come up with.
The point is that for so long history was written from a white male Eurocentric point of view. Now that we’re embracing a broader view, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of stories out there worth knowing and sharing.