Rating: 4 stars
What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved, the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, but as a part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.
So says Margot Lee Shetterly in the prologue to her history of the black female mathematicians working at NASA from the 1940s onwards. Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia. Her father was an engineer at Langley, working for NASA. She grew up among the women who worked alongside her father as human computers. Until a chance remark made by her father on a visit Shetterly made with her husband in 2010, she had no idea about the pioneering work these black women carried out, or about just how many black women worked at NASA. And so began her research into the subject.
The book proper begins with an overview of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and its relation to the US Army Air Corps. The starting point for the narrative is 1943, and the exponential expansion of the NACA in response to the Second World War. I found this introduction fascinating. I do so love a bit of engineering history.
Shetterly writes in an accessible way, and it’s clear that she loves her subject. Her interest in and excitement about the lives of these pioneering women is tangible. The prose buzzes across the page, almost breathless in its desire to set free this incredible story. Shetterly seems close to the women she writes about, and the novel-like style of her history brings their experience to life.
Shetterly also gets across the hypocrisy of the time, with America pledging to fight the Nazi regime that discriminated against, made slaves of, and wanted to destroy the Jewish people, while at the same time perpetrating the same crimes against its own Black citizens. The pettiness of the treatment of black people alone is shocking, without the knowledge of the direct harm segregation policies did to black people’s lives. Having just read Homegoing, which attempted to place the African-American experience in the context of a longer history of slavery and subjugation, I thought Shetterly did a better job.
As an example of pettiness, the existence of a table set aside for the “COLORED COMPUTERS” in the cafeteria at Langley is a case in point.
This was the kind of garden-variety segregation that over the years blacks had learned to tolerate, if not to accept, in order to function in their daily lives. But there in the lofty environment of the laboratory, a place that had selected them for their intellectual talents, the sign seemed especially ridiculous and somehow more offensive.
Other aspects of racism and segregation no less shocking are the references to pay inequality and the need for black families to take on additional work in order to realise their ambitions. So you have school teachers taking on laundry work or hiring themselves out as live in help during the summer holidays, and working additional jobs as secretaries and accountants to local churches, clubs and societies. All so that they can save for a future for their children that was guaranteed to their white peers. No wonder, then, that the promise of equal pay that amounted to three times their professional salaries as teachers was as big a draw as the opportunity to use their qualifications as mathematicians at the NACA.
One thing that I hadn’t thought about which interested me was the way in which having a pool of black female computers at Langley eventually opened the door to black male engineers gaining employment with the NACA. As a white woman from a working class background, my story is one of women fighting the closed shop of traditionally male professions to ease my right to be treated as an equal based on my ability to do a job, irrespective of gender. It was the accident of war in both cases that led to the start of women being viewed differently in the workplace, but the doors that the black computers at Langley opened feel more significant.
Throughout the book, Shetterly doesn’t over-dramatise the racism that was routine in her subjects’ lives. It is there as a fact of their lives, it isn’t shied away from or downplayed, it is simply presented as an ugly and frustrating reality. I thought this was one of the strengths of the book. It is woven through as a theme as vital to the story as that of the race to aeronautical supremacy. Shetterly is skilled in making that aeronautical story thrilling, condensing complex scientific and technical advances into something understandable for the lay reader, against a backdrop of significant social change. She also weaves in references to the political events of the time, touching on McCarthyism and the way rumour was treated as an excuse to persecute those whose social and political views opposed those of the people with power. Familiar themes as we watch the bigotry of the 45th President’s administration play itself out.
I thought the book was a joy, so positive and affirming of the idea that we can be the people we are meant to be, given the right opportunities. It was also affirming of the idea that we can create those opportunities ourselves, if we’re willing to fight for what we want and think is our due. And it was affirming of the way in which science and mathematics, far from being dull and difficult subjects, underpin the most exciting advances in human history.