With all the excitement surrounding Marvel’s Black Panther and the
slow but steady rise of recognition of Black Americans in Hollywood and the music scene, I have to admit that some of the talk surrounding Black History Month is a bit appalling to me. On social media and television platforms, there is a growing opinion against Black History being nationally celebrated for one month in the U.S. While I wholeheartedly disagree with this notion, a night out with Hidden Figures author, Margot Shetterly, absolutely sealed the deal on my thoughts of the importance of Black History Month.
While Black History is in fact American History, a vast majority of it is overlooked. In school history lessons it is relegated to 5-10 well known Black activists. On social media, a few flowery memes. And of course MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech on TV. While I appreciate the recognition and the national holidays, it’s truly not enough.
Our history is so rich. So amazing. So beautiful. And in many cases, still so hidden.
As part of their 150 Year Anniversary Celebrations, Fayetteville State University invited Hidden Figures author, Margot Shetterly, to speak to the students and community. My husband and I had the pleasure of attending this powerfully insightful time with her. Honestly, it was way more than what I expected in that she answered every burning question I had so eloquently. And to be clear, every question I had was one that most of us have regarding these unknown heroines we were introduced to on the big screen.
I mean my parents made sure I knew the history of our people beginning centuries ago as well as our personal family story. My great grandparents worked tirelessly to own the land they sharecropped that we still own and farm today. I’m pretty well versed on the courageous people who escaped slavery and fought for our freedom, invented just about everything, and advocated for our rights to live, vote and marry of our choice.
But how in the world did we miss Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and the hundreds of brilliant women that helped us get into space?
Mrs. Shetterly so eloquently answered this mystery in three main points:
She first clarified that the culture at that time kept women on the low end of the totem pole. And being a Black woman was even further under the barrel with segregation and inequality as societal norms at the time. These women were literally “human computers.” But at the time, it almost seemed that they relegated them just above a secretarial position.
Secondly, it was an untrusting society–one that lived by the mantra of “loose lips sink ships.” In wartime, there was no Mr. Telephone Man. You did your job and you went home. No really, the bragging was at an all-time low.
Lastly, yes, they were making history. But at the time, it was ordinary. That sounds crazy to us in hindsight, but these women were performing their “everyday” job duties as requested. Then they went home to their families and cooked, raised kids and had a social life too. It was all a part of the package. We can romanticize it today. But back then, it was everyday life filled with setbacks and triumphs.
And thats what makes this so interesting–the veiled treasure lurking in time.
It’s not necessarily that it was an intentional omission, moreso an oversight in time. And with that oversight came a multi-layered mystery to uncover. Shetterly’s research was massive and grueling yet exhilarating and passionate. She combed through archives of Black newspapers and aeronautics text books. After interviewing the women and their families, she camped out at the NASA History Office and National Archives in 5 states. She even submitted Freedom of Information Request Acts to the FBI. All to piece together this buried, precious trove. Shetterly said,
"Until Hidden Figures, I did not understand how meaningful and how transformative it is to be able to tell a story. Storytelling is what transmits our culture and our values. It determines both our future and the meaning of our past. And that's why the stories that we tell and how we tell the story matters so much."
Hidden Figures is a story of revelation, bringing out those that have been locked away in the the shadows. And while this particular story resonates with Black audiences, it is a story for everyone. Shetterly describes it this way,
"At a time when our country can seem fractured beyond repair, the power of story is such that it's still possible for people who believe themselves to be incompatibly different to see something the same way."
The awareness months for Cancer, ALS, Heart Disease, Human Trafficking and more shine a light on medical and social issues. Black History Month operates in that same vein, illuminating heroes and heroines that have made a significant mark on our American story.
See, “first and only” historical moments tend to monopolize history lessons. Like in the beginning of this blog, I mentioned what is typically shared during this time of year. And I’m not at all taking anything from the amazing men and women that led the charge for equality and human rights. I know that we are all grateful for them and what they accomplished. But what if we found out more? Shetterly mentioned,
"If we end with the first, then the rest of the history goes missing."
There were so many others that contributed to forward movement. Shetterly defined a hidden figure as “someone who has contributed something to our society that is worthy of recognition, but who’s labors have languished in the shadows.” That’s what I feel is most beneficial about Black History Month. It is a time to bring awareness so that “the rest of history” does not stay buried. It gets uncovered, shared and allowed to illuminate hopes, dreams and movements for continued change. Shetterly said,
"discovering these hidden figures was like putting on a special pair of glasses that allows you to see in between the shadows to see extraordinary people in every corner of history. History is a "sum total of what each of us does everyday."
“The only way to make the American story a true story is for all of us to make it a complete story.”
I say, let’s put on these “Hidden Figures Glasses” and seek to find what we have missed. We have to commit to telling those stories. We have to act—ask questions and be present–searching for the answers. What better time to do that is Black History month? We all have to work hard to fill in the absences and silences.