The Hidden Figures Did Small Great Things

Within 24-hours I finished listening to the Small Great Things audiobook and reading Hidden Figures. I have strong feelings about both and they are not what I expected to feel in either case. Hidden Figures was slow, it was boring, it was redundant and I do not feel like it carried those women to the heights it was designed to. On the other hand, Small Great Things was wonderfully woven and showed that people can change at any stage of their lives, and also that awareness can still be clouded. I know this is a little bit like comparing apples to oranges as Hidden Figures is a non-fiction novel and Small Great Things was inspired by a true story. However, I feel that careful comparisons can be made between the two which is what I intend to do here.

That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.

This really bothered me from the moment I read it. Growing up in Milwaukee, there were plenty of brown faces but none of them were the face of science. As an engineer now working on my PhD, I cannot even imagine how different my life had been if every black person I saw held this job. And honestly, I don’t know if I would have gotten here on the straight path that I have taken. The fact of the matter is, the face of science is not black. The face of science is white and male. While the book definitely makes this clear to the reader, there is something lacking. The milestones of the women at Langley are mentioned in less explicative detail than the stories about their marriages. One of the details I remember best from the book is about Katherine Johnson caring for her sick husband. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that Katherine Johnson was a brilliant woman shortchanged because of her breasts and her brown skin.

Racism is also about who has institutional power

This was in the author’s note provided by Picoult and I must say that author’s note is one of the most beautifully written ones that I have ever read. This becomes particularly annoying when you factor in how long and boring the epilogue of Hidden Figures was. I feel like both women were trying to justify their actions, but it is very difficult for me to understand why. For Picoult it is obvious, and she says it, she is a white woman trying to write about the experience of blacks in America, but she has never been black in America. For Shetterly she is a black female who grew up with many of the men and women she is writing about, so why does it feel like she’s hiding behind the story more than Picoult? I really would love an answer to this question, if anybody has an idea.

Equality is treating everyone the same. But equity is taking differences into account, so everyone has a chance to succeed.

This is quite possibly the most beautiful line in Small Great Things. What both writers do exceedingly well in the books is discuss how racism, and institutional racism, affect women of color in America. Here’s the part that is really difficult for me: I am a woman of color, so I love that these books highlight women. However, I understand that being a black woman in America is still different from being a black man in America. Neither book hammered on that point at all, and I do understand that space constraints and scope of the storyline impact this, it would have been nice if the black men mentioned in Small Great Things were without power rather than wielding power. It would have been nice if the male support in Hidden Figureshighlighted some of the men better. But again, I do understand why such decisions are made.

Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations

There are so many more quotes that I have in my notes from these books that I cannot work into this post. There are so many feelings in my heart that I cannot find the words to say. There is so much missing from this post that I feel like I am doing a grave injustice to each book, and that makes me no better than either Shetterly or Picoult. I cannot describe how I felt reading these books because I do not think the words exist for people who have not lived through being black in America. I do not think that a post-civil rights era child can understand the struggles the Langley women encountered at work. I know I cannot fully understand what it must have been like to use a bathroom not intended for me- or to designate bathrooms more strictly than male and female. This came up numerous times in the book, and today we have our own issue with bathrooms which does help some with the context. However, was which bathroom these women used really what demoralized them? Sure, it’s awful to think about, but is that what brings a person down? No, what brings a person down is the way other people treat them. As Picoult said in her author’s note, “recognize that differences between people make it harder for some to cross the finish line.” How does a toilet hinder you from crossing the finish line? It’s unjust to be sure, but it does not stop success.

They put me in chains. Just like that, they shackle my hands in front of me, as if that doesn’t send two hundred years of history running through my veins like an electric current. As if I can’t feel my great-great-grandmother and her mother standing on an auction block. They put me in chains, and my son- who I’ve told, every day since he was born, you are more than the color of your skin- my son watches.

I would like to end with this: it does not matter what color you were given by birth. There is a rich history for every colored person in every nation, and the more we talk about it, the better equipped we will be to listen and make others listen. The opportunities that you are granted may be a direct result of your color- whether that be given the benefit of the doubt because you are white or a job because of Affirmative Action. Your hardships and setbacks benefit others. However, what you get to see while you are growing up helps you grow into the adult you become. A caring and compassionate individual often saw that in their upbringing. An overt racist often saw racism as the norm. A black women who writes about black women who did something amazing and were among the firsts to do so with casual language, thought it was normal. A white woman who writes about a black nurse staying quiet her whole life has stayed quiet with the topic of her novel. That same white woman who writes about a public defender who thought she was fair, but realizes she still has a great “distance… yet to go when it comes to racial awareness” recognized it within herself. We all have biases, and we are not aware of all of them, even if we think we are. All that we can do is our best to be fair, and open, compassionate, and treat everybody with both equality and equity. But also, it’s about giving people the credit and recognition they deserve, in the capacity in which they have earned it.


Published by She Got The PhD

A web-based soapbox of an Assistant Professor of color in Chemical Engineering; sharing my feelings on books, academia, and current events. I hope you enjoy reading :)

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