Have you seen the Oscar-nominated film, “Hidden Figures”? I’ll jump to the end and tell you right off the bat that I loved this movie. We went a few weeks ago and brought our 12-year-old. What an extraordinary history lesson for us all.
If you didn’t know already, this film is the true story of three black, female engineers who were vital to the space program in the 1960s. The three main characters worked with other female engineers and mathematicians in the “colored” facility of NASA. The racism of the time is portrayed in subtle ways that hit you in the gut when you least expected it.
When the extraordinary talents of one of the women, Katherine Johnson, were finally recognized, she was moved to the “white” part of NASA to work with the mostly male engineers. The white people were perplexed when she left her desk for long periods of time each day. It never occurred to them that there was no “colored” restroom for her to use. Turns out, once per day she would literally run a full mile and a half back to her old building to use the restroom – since there was no restroom for “colored” people in the “white” building. Gut punch.
In another scene, we see Katherine pour a cup of coffee from the office coffee pot. The white people looked on, in disbelief. How dare she pour from the same pot. The next morning she discovered someone had set up a pot just for her … and they were kind enough to label it so she would know it was hers: COLORED. Gut punch.
While there were many really great scenes, one in particular settled in my bones fairly early in the film. It took place in what appeared to be a school principal’s office.
A young Katherine Johnson and her parents sit opposite the principal, who tells them their daughter has been identified as gifted. The school strongly recommends she move to a more advanced school and, as the parents soak in this good news, the principal hands them an envelope filled with money. The other teachers took up a small collection to assist the family with tuition at the new school. At first, the parents are unsure whether they should accept the money, but the principal asserts, “You must consider sending her to another school. You have to find out who she will become.”
And to me, that is the crux of the movie. How many stories like this one have yet to be told? And worse, how many stories like this were never even possible so many years ago. How many heroes never made it into the history books?
When I was enrolled for a semester at what is now UMass Lowell, I took a history class as part of my full-time liberal studies curriculum. I don’t recall the exact name of the class, but I do remember the teacher. He was an older white man who I naively wrote off as ‘out of touch’ and a ‘curmudgeon.’
Couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Although he was kind of grumpy (at least on the days when he didn’t have a Dunkin Donuts coffee cup on his desk), he was one of my first teachers to teach beyond the history books. This was before the Internet (the dark ages, as my daughter would say) and so he relied on literature, poetry, and other kinds of cultural data. His passion? The American Indian. He walked us through the American History we thought we had learned in grades K-12 and filled in the missing pieces of how settlers treated Indians and the state of these groups today. There were tears in his eyes when he talked of broken promises, the struggling reservations, and the near-extinguishing of the language, culture, and traditions of Native Americans.
When I attended UCF, I had many terrific professors, but again, one stood out to me. Professor Jones was kind of hippie-ish. He brought his guitar to class once. And his teaching style was to leverage the power of storytelling. He was captivating and, as my UMass Lowell professor, he enlightened us about various groups that were essentially omitted from our standard K-12 history books.
I don’t remember thinking too much about it at the time, but in both instances I look back and wonder why I didn’t learn about these stories in middle school and high school? Why did my history books focus on the white man’s experience with little more than a glossed-over mention of Native Americans, slaves, women, Latinos and others? How many other stories have literally been white-washed out of our books and our standard curriculum? Why is white history the default history?
Looking back, I now see that the privileged kind of history I learned about in school was for the most part framed within the lens of what was possible for me and others like me. It was framed within the context and from the perspective of white, suburban, middle class folks. Of course, it was tipped to favor my male counterparts, as much of women’s history was omitted save for the notables like Betsy Ross and Susan B. Anthony. Yet in spite of the glossing over of most of women’s history, I never had much doubt about what I could become. About what was possible for me.
After learning about stories and experiences other than my own (like Hidden Figures, the story of Ruby Bridges, the stories from my teachers of Native Americans, the Inuit, Japanese-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and more), I realize that the privilege of knowing what you could become doesn’t yet exist for everyone.
If you haven’t seen this movie, go. Bring your kids. Have a discussion. And don’t stop talking until every kid knows the possibility of what they could become.