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.