For me, the most splendid moment of the 89th annual Academy Awards was the surprise appearance of Katherine Johnson, one of the NASA mathematicians portrayed in the movie “Hidden Figures.” The 98-year-old wheel-chair bound Johnson was beautiful in a sky blue dress as she graciously received a well-deserved standing ovation with a simple “Thank you.” She has lived to witness the world’s appreciation. However, as Black History Month – February – becomes Women’s History Month – March, and as we have witnessed International Women’s Day demonstrations, it is important to recognize that at this moment in time, the story of Katherine Johnson and her colleagues inspires us to keep our grace through this moment of madness.
The movie is an excellent portrayal of women working in the early space programs as computers doing the mathematics necessary to get a man into space and back safely. It takes place at a time in American history when apartheid ruled the land both in overt and covert ways and when the space race was a visible aspect of the Cold War. In the movie we see the inconvenience and stupid waste of time of an apartheid system where African Americans were assigned to certain bathrooms in certain buildings. In the movie, Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, has to run across the campus to use the rest room. Here the movie takes dramatic license because the real Johnson did not do this. She simply ignored the rules and used the nearest women’s rest room.
There is another example of the way the women maintained their dignity and grace in the midst of a dehumanizing system that is described in the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly. (Do not walk, but run to your nearest bookstore, library, e-reader and get your copy of the book. It fills in details that the movie did not have the space to include.) Shetterly describes the persistence of the women in the lunch room to remove the sign that designated the “colored “section. The woman would remove the sign, but some unseen hand would place another. They kept removing the sign. Another sigh would appear. Until one day, they removed the sign and the sign did not reappear. These women were confident in the knowledge of their own worth, of their own humanity, and they acted accordingly.
They found their humanity not only in their own excellence, but they found it in community, in family, church, sororities, and other civic organizations. They were not only encouraged by their parents, teachers, and husbands, but they also lived the maximum of “lift as you climb.” They were leaders and mentors in their communities.
The story of these women reminds us that the only limit to what we can achieve is the limit of our own imaginations. Their story helps us and young people to see beyond the stereotypes that seek to limit us and who we think we are or can be.
There is a pedagogical idea called stereotype threat. This is the idea that the stereotypes of groups follow us like a specter and seek to define us. Students are aware of these stereotypes very early in their educational careers. When they take standardized tests and they think they are being measured on a particular group quality, they will often perform to the stereotype. For example, if girls think that girls do not do math and they are taking a test to measure math skill, sometimes they will perform down to the idea that girls do not do math.
In an essay “The Performance Gap: Stereotype Threat, Assessment, and the Education of African American Children” Eric A. Hurley writes that there needs to be more study on stereotype threat and the remedies for it, but he also refers to studies that show when students are given assignments that cause them to think about positive role models before an assessment, the threat is diminished. He writes:
“A study by Rusty McIntyre and colleagues, for example, found that having participants read short biographies of positive role models alleviated stereotype threat and that the effects were cumulative. . . Participants who read four such biographies performed better on a subsequent test than those who read three. Those who read three outperformed those who read two and so on.”
Katherine Johnson thinks about her life as no huge deal. She was blessed to earn her living doing work that she loved, that allowed her talents to shine. In her mind, she was only doing her job. In the book, she remembers her female colleagues. Her witness witnesses to their work and abilities as well as to her own. One story becomes two, three and more.
It is way past time that we know the stories of women such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson. It is not only important for us to know that their math skills helped to advance manned space flight, but that they supported each other in holding on to their human dignity. We need their stories to chase away our own specters of inferiority or of superiority that is at the heart of racism, sexism and a variety of phobias toward the Other.
We are living in a moment when the president of the United States has bragged about assaulting women and more than one woman has come forward to say that he did what he said that he did. Yet, he is elected through the Electoral College to the highest office in the land. We live at a moment where this same president of the United States accuses his predecessor with criminal conduct without one iota of evidence. We live in a moment when the United States Senate will shut down one of its own members – a woman – for reading a letter from another woman that is critical of a member. (Male senators were able to read the letter with no interference.) What are we demonstrating to our children? What are we revealing about ourselves?
We need all the role models of grace, dignity, and excellence that we can find.
Our children, male and female, of all races, religions, national identities, sexual orientations, and gender identities ought to know the sheores and heroes of their own stories and those of the Others. Perhaps we can exorcize the specter of stereotype threats and see the beauty and the brilliant possibilities that reside in us all, and thereby restore some sense to our national life.
See: “The Performance Gap: Stereotype Threat, Assessment, and the Education of African American Children” in “Education as Freedom: African American Educational Thought and Activism” Edited by Noel S. Anderson and Haroon Kharem
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”