Look at any list of well-known individuals from Hampton, Virigina, and it’ll be dominated by people form the performing arts and sporting worlds. The Answer as a Hamptonite comes to mind, and his appearance at the Garden the other day in a Rebel Alliance hat brought speculation that he might be a closet Star Wars Nerd.
But there is a new Hamptonite on the scene who has given voice to a heroic group of black women integral to building the United States aeronautical program before LBJ and other Texans influenced NASA to move from “Spacetown USA” to Houston. It is mind-boggling to think that “Hidden Figures” is Margot Lee Shetterly’s first effort as an author, because she writes with the flair of a polished veteran. She has done more for “STEM Sell” among women in general, and within the African-American community in particular, than most efforts to date in the popular culture. Aiding this is the movie now out by the same name, which debuted last weekend to nice critical acclaim.
We saw the movie last night and it is well done, though it shortchanges the wealth of research and style of substance in the book. Kevin Costner plays the role of a civil rights champion in the movie, a foil to the the women who fought for respect and recognition. There was no such figure in the book, which accords the story of these courageous women and their upbringing its proper due. Katherine Johnson, the main subject of Hidden Figures, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015 and last year NASA Langley’s new Computational Research Facility was formally dedicated in her name. At the 30:00 minute mark of the ceremony, Ms. Shetterly pays tribute to the story she wrote about Hidden Figures, but I’d encourage you to watch the entire uplifting presentation.
In her book, Ms. Shetterly speculates along with Katherine as to why there was a disconnect in the black community about the opportunities available through STEM education. Part of it may have stemmed from the perception that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics were a luxury to think about that remained elusive when the community at large was occupied day-to-day necessities.
Toward the end of Hidden Figures, Ms. Shetterly relates that the actress Nichelle Nichols tendered her resignation of her role as Lieutenant Uhura after the first season of Star Trek in 1967. She was attending a celebrity NAACP fundraiser in LA when an attendee who declared himself to be one of her greatest fans asked to be introduced to her, noting that Star Trek was the only show that he and his wife allowed their children to watch. He never missed an episode, and urged her not to leave the show because her role was groundbreaking. He considered it immensely important in helping black people imagine a brighter future for themselves in a multicultural society. On Monday morning, Nichelle returned to Gene Roddenberry’s office and asked him to tear up her letter of resignation. The name of the persuasive fan? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.