Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Why Seeing Hidden Figures is Important

As a student in school, I didn’t have a Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan or Mary Jackson to look up to. Heck, I never even heard their names until college when we were privileged to learn from the great Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville, mathematician and former IBM programmer who actually created programs written for NASA through their contract with IBM. She was the one that told us about these women but even then, it didn’t quite sink in as to the magnitude of their work and the sacrifices made to pave the way for all of us.

Still, that was college and thinking back to those pivotal early learning, middle and high school years, it would have been amazing to know of not just these women but other people of color who paved the way in math and science. Their stories would have inspired us all in the face of a reality that constantly reminds you that you’ll never be good enough.

Earlier this year, I attended an event at the Computer History Museum and was absolutely mortified as I toured the “super dude heavy” exhibits with barely any mention of women and absolutely no people of color…especially in the entire exhibit about John Glenn and space exploration. It bothered me so much that I talked to the museum educators only to learn that they had no clue who Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson were or that any women of color were there at all. That moment clouded my judgement of all things so much that I barely got through that event without flipping out over the absence of our stories and inaction of uncovering them…or at least updating because by then, the Hidden Figures movie was not only announced but on my countdown!

Clearly, my words went nowhere because they’re doing this now. Please do tell me what’s missing from these pictures.

Super long sigh…

When it comes to movies, I’ve been known to participate in my share of midnight premieres and countdowns for movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter and Yes…Twilight. Months ago, Hidden Figures joined that list and while sitting in the theater waiting on opening credits to end so that the movie could start, I realized that in that moment, I’ve never been more excited for anything.

I was in tears before the movie started.

It’s not everyday that a story connects on such a deep level in the way that Hidden Figures did. I felt like that young girl sitting in math class working out algorithms in my head when my teacher said that I couldn’t or the teenager recognizing the deeply beautiful geometric world with which we lived or even the young adult that often solved “really simple” problems in front of people just because I knew that it was intimidating and I liked how that felt. The difference was that these were stories of women who looked like me and using their gifts to change the world…a world that refused to recognize their brilliance enough to celebrate their contributions throughout time. (Every time Katherine Johnson had to take her name off of the memo of HER work, I wanted to scream!!!)

I sat in the theater alongside one of my dear friends, another black math teacher who also felt connections to these powerful stories. We laughed, cried, cringed and compared our own journeys to each character as their personalities unfolded.

They were us and we are them in work and spirit.

Our journeys intersected at many…many points.

There were plenty of moments in the film that helped us understand the sacrifices made in a field largely invisible of “us”. In a single line, brilliantly stated by Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, “Every time we have the chance to get ahead, they move the finish line…every time”, it lays the framework for discussions as to why we went from a room of black women hired as “computers” who learned programming to companies that can’t quite seem to find any qualified people of color to do advanced work in this field.

Every person, especially in education, needs to see this film and not just from a standpoint of historical significance but because it will make you leave and question your own intentions, known or unknown. It’ll make you think about the barriers and the fight to get through them. It should make us question who gets in the door and who does not…how we leave others behind when we should be bringing them through with us.

For me, it affirmed my own internal desire to make sure that if I open doors…it’s not just for me but for all of us. Dorothy Vaughan is my hero for this.

We have to continue the discussions that Hidden Figures demands that we have. Who are we missing now and how can we help uplift and uncover while holding those accountable that work to hold brilliance back?

Hidden Figures touched me on a personal level because of my own journey and connection to my own hero in Dr. Granville and I am so happy to have lived in a time where I could hear it directly from her and then see it told through this medium. She is currently living in DC and I wonder if she’ll get to the theater to see it.

Speaking of the theater, I saw Hidden Figures in an early release viewing at a mall an hour from my home.

…in a sold out theater, surrounded by people from all walks of life…

…learning of the black girl magic that helped advance our country’s space exploration…saving John Glenn’s life.

I saw Star Ways at least 10X in the theater. I will see Hidden Figures more than that and hopefully with a new crop of people each time, eager to laugh, cry, learn and discuss.

It’s THAT great.

One more thing, when Hidden Figures opens, I’ll be in Monterrey, CA at the California League of Schools technology conference where I’ll be keynoting Saturday morning. If you’re there, join me at the theater Saturday night!

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