Honoring Black History Month
I saw the film Hidden Figures recently. You should go see it too.
The film tells a story about Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who were only a few of the many African-American women who worked at NASA’s space program, making possible the first orbital flight of John Glenn.
It is also a story about how personal humiliation perpetrated by NASA engineers draws out the resilience of the three women – and their resilience leads to a breakthrough by the engineers. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary were employed to do the computations needed for space flight before computers had names like IBM. In fact, they were called “computers.”
Every day these exceptional women were focused on NASA’s success, and in the process, endured the most personal humiliations in having to use a separate (and certainly not equal) “colored only” bathroom. Katherine, the main character had to walk a half mile away from her desk each time she needed to use the restroom. Dorothy was prohibited from borrowing a book on computer programming from the library. Mary had to get a federal court judge to rule in order for her to study engineering. All because they were black. Almost all the men at NASA acted like so many other white privileged people: oblivious to the bias they carried.
I don’t think it ever hit me so clearly how awful this bias was until I saw this film. As a very privileged white woman, who lives a very sheltered life, I was deeply touched by the resilience of these women who could stand back up every time some nasty person put them down, in the guise of polite society. When they were insulted, demeaned, or when their right to exist was questioned, they stood tall. Clearly African-Americans move through the world differently than white people.
How is it that they had the internal capacity to come back each time from these institutionalized humiliations? Studies have shown that most people have the capacity to bounce back from catastrophic disaster. It’s the everyday difficulties that are harder to endure. Day after day, these women put up with white engineers and office managers who would not drink from the same coffee pot, did not give them credit for the work they did, and questioned their competence. Where did the women get the resilience they needed to put up with such personal insult and disrespect? God was surely with them.
The Moment of Truth
In an explosive, climatic scene, Katherine has just rushed back to the office, having crossed the campus in a torrential downpour, without an umbrella, soaked to the bone and out of breath. Her boss confronts her. “Where do you go every day for 40 minutes?” he shouts. Instead of blasting back at him with insults, she lets loose her frustrations by screaming out to him, that she HAS TO USE THE RESTROOM AND IT TAKES HER ALL THAT TIME BECAUSE SHE HAS TO GO A HALF MILE AWAY EVERY TIME! He stops in his tracks.
Katherine does not attack him personally; instead, she lays bare the reality that she deals with every day. It is this moment of truth that leads to his breakthrough. He realizes the stupidity of this rule and he takes a crowbar to the Colored Only restroom sign. Her resilience, her capacity to stand back up with dignity, leads to his realization of a painful truth. And he is changed. He sees her in a new light.
Indeed the rest of the engineers began to see these women in a new light. The signs come down and there is only one coffee pot for everybody. Credit is given where due. More importantly, the women were finally recognized for their essential role in John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. Katherine later worked on the Apollo missions, the Space Shuttle and plans for a mission to Mars.
I have a lot to learn from the resilience of these women.
Here’s a prayer for today:
Dear God, help me to see with new eyes the demeaning experience of others who are treated as less than equal. Lay bare the bias that I carry with me, unaware. Give me the gift of seeing the reality of racism in our midst. Give me the same resilience to come back from my own ignorance and to breakthrough to the truth that we are all your children, we all deserve respect. Amen.
For a review of the film by Tom Condon, OP, visit DomLife.