Black history and U.S. history are synonymous, said best-selling author Margot Lee Shetterly. Her book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, made the bestseller lists last year, and the movie of the same name released on Christmas Day has struck box office gold.
Both the book and the film bring to light the story of a group of Black women with math backgrounds who, beginning during World War II, were employed as “human computers” in the early days of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Their story has remained mainly untold until now.
“I spent six years working on the research,” said Shetterly in an MSR phone interview. “It’s a big burden” to properly tell the story, she noted.
Shetterly’s father was among the first NASA engineers and scientists, and her mother was a college English professor. She grew up around Hampton (Va.) University, where the Hidden Figures women studied.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, she first went into the finance world as an investment banker for several years. Then after working in several startup ventures, including co-founding a magazine with her husband, Shetterly began researching and writing her first book.
“It’s their lives,” said Shetterly on the women she covered in her book. “I always felt a tremendous responsibility to get it right… I took days reading everything I could about them, interviewing them, spending time with their families, looking at pictures [and] documents from their schools — everything I could so that I really understood, in a very sentimental way, who these women were and what they accomplished.”
Shetterly said she could relate to the feeling the women had of being one of very few. “I was the only Black woman or Black person in professional settings,” she recalled. “Going through those challenges [and thinking]: Do I dare speak up and disagree with the boss? All these things these women went through — obviously they went through so much more [and] in extreme circumstances.”
Was she surprised with the dual success of the book and the movie, which centered around three Black women mathematicians: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Hanson), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae)? “This is my first book and I had no idea on how to write a book, much less have it adapted,” admitted the author, who served as an executive producer of the movie.
“I’m very pleased with it. I worked real closely with the screenwriter and the director and the producer. I offered feedback along the way. I got a chance to see the script, give feedback and [view] the rough cut of the movie,” she said.
More importantly, Johnson, the only surviving “hidden figure” (Jackson and Vaughan both passed away in 2005 and 2008, respectively), the late women survivors, and their families are pleased with her effort, noted Shetterly. “They have been very happy with the movie. I’ve gotten wonderful feedback from…their families, the NASA engineers who were there at the time, and a lot of people who were involved in that history. It’s been wonderful, the honor of my life to tell their stories and ensure that this story is a part of American history.”
Black women’s stories are part of American history, a part that is too often overlooked simply because of race, said Shetterly. “Black history is one of the great legacies of American history, even though it is painful and difficult. It [the history] is some of the worst part of America, [but] it is also some of the best part of America that we are figuring out how to bring…forward, especially in a time like now.”
Shetterly contended that Blacks throughout history have battled to get America to live up to its original ideals. “I think that Hidden Figures and these women [are] a wonderful way to celebrate that,” she concluded.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Margot Lee Shetterly will be featured at The Humphrey School of Public Affairs’ Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series Feb. 21. The event is full, but check this link for ticket release possibilities on Feb 15.