Hidden. Figures. History books overlook pivotal instances and contributors to our country’s past. Some of these moments simply lacked a scribe or a historian to serve as record keeper, while others are intentionally neglected, deemed insignificant, omitted, or rejected by those whom have the power and the resolve to do so. Many of these forgotten contributors are women or people of color, or both. Abandoned in the shadows. The movie "Hidden Figures" details one of these instances that would have been otherwise unknown to many, eclipsed by other adventures or characters in history. This film acknowledges and celebrates the story of Black women’s contribution to the space race between the United States and U.S.S.R during the Cold War, and follows three Black women working as “computers” that support NASA’s development of prototypes that orbit in space. Mary Jackson, Kathryn Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughn, played by actors Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer, respectively, display their struggles to overcome racially and sexually intolerant working conditions at NASA, in order to actualize their brilliance and not be denied their humanity. What the movie doesn’t primarily call attention to are the inputs that led these three Black women (and the other women that will remain “hidden”) to be brilliant mathematicians. These inputs, whether affirming or demoralizing, played a role in the women’s access to the positions at NASA in which we first encounter them in the film.
Are We Preparing Our Black Girls to Be Pioneers?
Since viewing the movie, I’ve found myself asking, “How am I preparing young Black girls to be at the forefront of discovery at NASA?” It’s a big question, and maybe one that is too specific, but it is still an important question I must ask myself and other educators.
Are we preparing our Black girls to be pioneers? Or are we hindering and blockading them from industries that we feel are not for them. We live in an educational landscape that sacrifices genuine excitement for math and science and discovery for student outcomes driven by assessment performance. (That's not to say assessments aren't important—because they are and it's important to know where our students stand—but it shouldn't be the only thing driving classrooms.) Teachers are fighting for higher effectiveness-ratings, and job security, which isn’t the same thing as fighting for students’ ability to be innovative or imaginative. Within this educational ecosystem, girls are pushed to the peripheral, whether it be intentionally or unintentionally, from STEM fields. As educators, we cannot be the ones hiding young girls of color in the shadows, closing doors to exposure and access. We need to give the green light to our girls that want to join the coding clubs or take AP Calculus or become pilots. We cannot be the ones that stand in their way, gripping our stubborn shields of sexism, faking like we’re protecting them from fields we believe aren’t meant for them. We cannot create hidden figures in our own classrooms. Let’s stop hiding them.
An original version of this post appeared on Those Who Don't.
Shamar Knight-Justice is an assistant dean at KIPP WAYS Primary. He spends his days teaching Black and Brown kids how to take over the world, trying not to get yelled at by his wife for leaving twice-worn socks on the living room floor, and jogging slowly through Atlanta (pronounced A-lan-nuuh), Georgia.
He blogs at EdLANTA.