‘Hidden Figures’ and the Hidden History of Black Scientific Success

Hidden Figures does many thing right. The cast is superb from top to bottom. One could make an Oscar argument for all three and the film itself for Best Picture. With the recent success of the film at the box office and it's glowing reviews from critics, it's become a powerful force this award season.

Without giving away too many spoilers, the movie sheds light on the work of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson - known at NASA at human computers. Their work and the work of other black female scientists and mathematicians helped America win the space race and eventually land man on the moon.

This was achieved during a time, much like today, of great social unrest. The Civil Rights Movement was in full motion and plays out more or less in the background of the film. We see how Katherine had to walk to the other end of the campus and back just to use the "colored" restroom - a trip that we find out could take 40 minutes in total. I guess it was assumed that they didn't need any "colored" restrooms nearby given the fact that no Blacks were ever allowed in those "pristine" halls anyway.

 Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer
Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer

The film ends on a positive note and is mandatory viewing especially for Black people. It's important we teach our children (and ourselves) the importance of science, technology and math. Physics, Calculus, Chemistry, Engineering - these are all fields that can be used within the black community and America as a whole. Films like '42' and 'Pride' are cool, so are musical biopics like 'The Temptations,' 'Cadillac Records,' 'Ray' and 'Get On Up.' However what separates 'Hidden Figures' from those is that this one deals with black female scientists participating in one of the most important events in U.S. history! The magnitude is far greater than all of those other accomplishments, but they don't get the shine. It's a shame.

However it's not just the story of these three incredibly smart black female scientists and other like them who worked with them. No, it's also about the many others. The black inventors, the black scientists, the black builders who existed during a time when it was common to see popular depictions of blacks as ignorant and inferior.

Not many have heard of Edward Bouchet, the first African-American to receive a PhD at any American university in 1874. He completed his dissertation in physics at Yale in 1876 and became the first black person to ever graduate from Yale...and it was in physics!

Marie Maynard Daly was a chemist and became the first black woman to receive a PhD in chemistry in the United States in 1947.

How about Sylvester James Gates who is a theoretical physicist known for his work on supersymmetry, supergravity and superstring theory.

There are many great black men and women scientists out there. Their work is the most important of all and goes largely unrecognized. It's not flashy or trendy, but it may be some of the most rewarding and fulfilling work one could ever be involved in. My personal favorite science is chemistry and after that I'd say materials science. I love the periodic table of the elements - it's absolutely fascinating how it tells you so much. I also love genetics, so much so that at one point in time I wanted to be a geneticist. DNA, chromosomes, proteins, enhancers, silencers...haha let me stop nerding out now. I'm just recalling old Cell Biology college classes.

The point of all of this is to say that knowledge is power and also brings wisdom. All great people and civilizations understood the need to be at the technological forefront. Entire civilizations have fallen in history due to their slacking on the scientific front. The people that get the scientific edge, get the technological edge and people with weaker tech always get beaten by people with better tech. 

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