Author Margot Lee Shetterly's lecture focusing on her "Hidden Figures" book filled Rackham Auditorium and its overflow room. The event, which was sponsored by the University of Michigan College of Engineering, highlighted the importance of Shetterly’s novel in social and political contexts.
“Hidden Figures” is the story of African-American female mathematicians at NASA in the years before and during the space race. The women, whose stories were covered up in history, helped put Apollo 11 on the moon through their work. The book was adapted to be a movie and has since been nominated for three Oscars.
Following an introduction by University President Mark Schlissel, Shetterly began by explaining the plot of the story, highlighting how the characters in the story pushed themselves to excel at school and were agents of much larger social change.
“Their next step was to convince their colleagues to look beyond, to look beyond their race, to look beyond their gender,” Shetterly said. “Their goal was, of course, not to stand out because of their differences, but fit in because of their talent.”
The women at NASA, Shetterly explained, are often overlooked in history. Other figures, like Martin Luther King Jr., were pushed forward by the accomplishments of the African-American women working at NASA.
“Most people in our country think of the civil rights movement as something that started in 1954 with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and culminated with Dr. King’s speech in 1963 at the march on Washington,” Shetterly said. “Dr. King stood on the shoulders of others to reach his mountaintop.”
Shetterly explored why it has taken so long for the story of these women to be told. Despite there being many women working alongside the main characters of the story, their contribution has still been obscured.
“(There) may have been as many 1,000 women … working as professional mathematicians,” Shetterly said. “Why didn’t we use them as role models?”
Shetterly quickly answered the question she posed, saying the women were hired as sub-professionals, putting them below men at NASA. However, she added that though this was true, there were other reasons for them being forgotten.
“Women of all backgrounds were separated from the men,” Shetterly said. “In the beginning, the Black women went into the west area computing section and the white women went into the east area office.”
The biggest reason, Shetterly concluded, was that computing was considered women’s work, in comparison to engineering, which was a male-dominated field.
The American dream, Shetterly said, is something the women in the story experienced, making the story of the women even more important to tell.
“I think the power of the American dream is that it too is a story, as much myth as it is reality, something that we tell ourselves about how we live and what we believe and what we think is possible,” Shetterly said. “This is a story about including Black women in the American dream.”
Following the lecture, LSA sophomore Zi Huang said she found the story of the lives of the women in the book inspiring.
“Even in times like the 1950s there wasn’t even the civil rights movement yet,” Huang said. “There were women making this type of progress and it gives me a lot of hope.”
Rackham student Jasmine Jones, a computer scientist, was also encouraged by the story.
“I think it was inspiring to a lot of people and I think it’s going to be a good chance for people everywhere to really take seriously and thank their education and opportunities and to really push forward and not discount themselves and what they can contribute to society,” Jones said.
A Q&A after the lecture allowed the audience to ask questions about contemporary segregation and the process Shetterly went through in researching for and writing her book.
“One of the things is that we have schools that are segregated not just by race, but by income and by opportunity and we are leaving so much talent on the table,” Shetterly said.
Hours after the featured event, Shetterly also gave a "fireside chat" at Stamps Auditorium. The 450 seats at the venue were again filled to capacity, and many more waited outside to be first in line at the book signing afterward.
Speaking to the appeal of getting the autograph of an idol, Shetterly said when she went to meet Katherine Johnson –– one of the protagonists of the book and film –– Shetterly had her sign her personal copy of the book.
Shetterly also talked about the importance of failure in being successful.
"Realize you will fail," she said. "As a writer, you will rewrite more times than you ever believed possible, and that is the only way to make anything better."
Rackham student Lydia Atangcho found the talk inspiring and agreed on the importance of having diverse role models.
"It's really uncommon for us as female Black engineers to see role models like this and to talk about people that came before us and to see all these people that we didn't know about," Atangcho said.
In addition to University students, there were many elementary school and middle school children in the audience, which Atangcho regarded as important.
"My favorite part was hearing really young kids ask their questions," she said. "For young kids to be growing up in this day and age and to be able to hear these types of stories –– even in our generation, we're not that old, and we didn't get that –– so for them to be able to get this experience and ask simple questions but really important questions, that was really inspiring."