I nominated this book by Margot Lee Shetterly for my book club and it got enough votes for us to read and discuss it! Woo hoo! The first book I nominated that actually got chosen!
I noticed people were commenting that it was super hard to get this one from the library, and since I owned a copy, I read it quickly so I could pass it on to some of my fellow book club members so they’d have a chance to read it before our meeting. Of course, I had to wrestle it from my mom first.
On the one hand, I wanted to finish this book before the end of February because I was cramming books by and about African Americans for black history month. On the other hand I wasn’t sure I wanted to read another nonfiction book so soon after reading Invisible Men, which was kind of a slog. But this book was much better written than Invisible Men, so it wasn’t a problem at all.
I actually found that to be one of the most impressive aspects of this book: how engaging the writing was. It really was a page turner, but it’s purely nonfiction. Shetterly didn’t make anything up. At least I don’t think she did. She spent countless hours interviewing the three women this book focuses on (Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Mary Jackson) and it sounded like she interviewed a fair number of others who worked with or knew the three women, even if they weren’t personally involved in the space race.
This book covers everything. Since NASA (then known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA), was originally based in Hampton, Virginia, the black people working there had to deal with Jim Crow laws in addition to the other barriers that prevented many of them from obtaining the better jobs of their less qualified white counterparts. The women also had to deal with sexism, but it sounded like a lot of them didn’t let any of that stop them.
Most of the women were teachers before they started working for the NACA, but the NACA allowed them to earn much more money than they could ever hope to make by teaching. Still not as much as their white and/or male coworkers were making, but it was a considerable step up for them.
Apparently, in the days before electronic computers, women were hired to do some of the more basic calculations for the engineers, although the calculations were given to them disembodied from the broader scale of the work the engineers were doing. As a result, the women didn’t know what results their calculations were supposed to achieve, they just showed up, did the work, and got paid.
At first it was primarily white women who were hired as computers, but there simply weren’t enough Caucasians to do all the work, which was why they started hiring African Americans.
I loved the movie, and now that I’ve read the book, I’m disappointed the screenplay didn’t win the Oscar for best adaptation. The book takes place from WWII all the way through the sixties and even stretches a little into the seventies, whereas the movie takes place primarily in the early sixties. They had to condense a lot of information into two hours and, while there will always be things I wish they could have kept, on the whole I think they did an admirable job of including all the major points. Some things got moved around and assigned to different people from the one who actually had to deal with it in real life, but the points remained the same.
Although no one physically beat down the “Colored” sign over any of the bathrooms, the Jim Crow laws that reigned in the rest of the state were largely ignored on the NACA base, but ignored quietly because everyone was too uncomfortable to actually address the issue out loud. But, of course, it looks so much more dramatic to have someone literally beat down a sign of oppression.
There were a couple big takeaways from this book. The first was how ridiculous Jim Crow was when it meant shabby schools for both races and the fact that refusing to invest in educating African Americans meant there was a shortage of qualified workers when we could least afford such a shortage.
I also had not realized that segregation made us look bad overseas. Here the US was trying to act as a guide for other countries that were just starting to embrace democracy, but when they saw how we treated half our population, how were they supposed to take us seriously?
Not to mention the idea that Southern whites thought integration would mean the end of civilization. Seriously? Did they think the whole northern half of the country was uncivilized? The half that beat them in the Civil War? Yeah, actually they probably did…
Anyway, the point is that this book is awesome and everyone should read it. And watch the movie. They’re both phenomenal.
What did you guys read this week? Anything else you wish had won an Oscar?