Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures opens in 1926 with Katherine G. Johnson, a gifted sixth grader, being offered a place at West Virginia Collegiate Institute in Institute, WV, one of the few black schools in the region that offered an education beyond the eighth grade. The movie then jumps ahead to 1961, Johnson and her fellow “human computers” now checking the numbers that will send the first white Americans to space. But in between, Johnson would remain in Institute to attend West Virginia State College, where she discovered the importance of math under the tutelage of Dr. William Claytor, only the third African American to earn a PhD in the subject. The small HBCU is an important university in the area, training many of the local public school teachers, and former students who have walked its halls—though not necessarily all at once, in slow motion—include Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first black player, Antoine Fuqua, the director of Training Day, and members of the Tuskegee Airmen. Less famous alumni include math tutor and cafe trivia host me.
I grew up about twenty minutes away from Institute and first found my way to West Virginia State University, as it is now called, when I was sixteen. Having exhausted all the math classes that my high school and another local college offered, there was only one place I could go if I wished to continue. Yet locally, “State” has a bad reputation, particularly among the wealthy. Suffering more than the usual condescension toward state schools, State’s ridicule seemed especially charged, with kids frequently citing fake statistics about the prevalence of drugs and STIs on the campus. That the school had been integral to the education of so many people, famous or otherwise, never came up.
Years later, after a break from school, I returned to WVSU as a college student, and though State was not MIT, I was able to learn from professors who actually seemed to enjoy teaching, one of whom provided me the chance to conduct math research, with a grant from NASA, in the same department Katherine Johnson had. Still, the stigma remained. Teaching SAT and ACT courses for a test prep company, I frequently dealt with wealthy high school students who, after an only-above-average practice test result, or even just a silly mistake, would lament that they would “have to go to State.” All affluent, and almost all white (I taught maybe two black students in Charleston, out of a couple hundred), they laughed, knowing it wasn’t true.
During my last year teaching in the area, a local high school—the “good” school, where most of my students attended—was celebrated in the newspaper for its twenty National Merit Semifinalists, an honor earned by performance on the PSAT. “To have 20 students eligible for the National Merit Scholarship in one school is just remarkable, statistically,” the county’s superintendent said. The year before, the school had only seven. But amid praise of the students, the school, and the parents, there was no mention of the thousands spent on test prep. Of the twenty, at least half had been tutored by me.
The fact that the achievements of these hard-working, interesting kids can, in part, be paid for, is not a secret. College Board, the maker of the SAT, battled this accusation for years until finally admitting it before the release of its latest revision to the test. But it also isn’t the kind of fact we like to acknowledge. It complicates the story of a meritocracy that so many wish us to be a character in, a story that drives the very anxieties that brought these students to me in the first place. The danger here is that facts are delicate things, and without the light of public discussion, many wither and die. It’s why Trump’s “all lives matter” style Holocaust memorial statement that failed to mention Jewish people was so irresponsible, and why stories like that in Hidden Figures can remain invisible, even to those so close to it, in a time when information has never been more available. If fake news spreads by confirming simple, uninformed narratives, the story of Hidden Figures has been buried because it does the opposite.
In her essay “Truth and Politics,” which turns fifty today, German-born Jewish American Hannah Arendt writes:
[Factual truth] is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever. . . . Perhaps the chances that Euclidean mathematics or Einstein’s theory of relativity—let alone Plato’s philosophy—would have been reproduced in time if their authors had been prevented from handing them down to posterity are not very good either, yet they are infinitely better than the chances that a fact of importance, forgotten or, more likely, lied away, will one day be rediscovered.
Arendt makes much of this difference between the factual truth of history and the rational truth of mathematics, a kind of truth about which, as Hobbes says, “men care not,” a kind of truth that “crosses no man’s ambition, profit or lust.” It is this difference that allowed Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and dozens of other black women to enter the buildings at Langley. Though black people had been fighting segregation for decades, the mathematical accuracy of the “colored computers” was, unlike the fact of their humanity, beyond doubt. Its ranks depleted by war, and desperate to “gain supremacy of the air,” as employment ads of the time read, over the Russians, the US pushed these other concerns aside.
Unfortunately, Hidden Figures, needing to package a complex history for mass consumption, must also push a lot aside. Devoted to the individual battles of its three main characters, the long, brutal fight for equal rights appears only in the background, and Jim Crow, rather than a humiliating, mortal threat, is mostly a source of the usual obstacles to be overcome in this kind of movie. When Mary Jackson, who would become NASA’s first black female engineer, petitions to be allowed to take engineering courses she shouldn’t need at a whites-only high school, she pleads her case directly to the judge. No lawyer is necessary because her plea is not a constitutional one but a personal one. “Out of all the cases you’re going to hear today, which one is going to matter a hundred years from now?” Jackson asks the judge. “Which one is going to make you the first?” A few seconds later, the judge has decided. “Only the night classes?” he jokes.
Likewise, when Johnson is granted unprecedented access for a black woman, it is not because of her innate, constitutional humanity but because her exceptional, indispensable mind leaves her boss no choice. To be fair, Johnson herself also avoids politics when telling her story, saying she was merely “doing her job.” And while the movie makes much of Johnson’s Pharrell-backed trips from one end of the campus to the other to use a black bathroom, Johnson downplays the role of segregation in her time at Langley. As Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book on which Hidden Figures is based, notes:
It would be a couple of years before she was confronted with the whole rigmarole of separate bathrooms. By then, she simply refused to change her habits—refused to so much as enter the Colored bathrooms. And that was that. No one ever said another word to her about it.
This doesn’t mean segregation didn’t affect Johnson in myriad other ways beyond the scope of a holiday feel-good drama. But again, the truth is complicated. Discussing the movie, which began filming before she’d even finished the book, Shetterly has said, “It would be great for people to understand that there were so many more people. . . . But I understand you can’t make a movie with 300 characters. It is simply not possible.” She is right, of course. The compromises I’m talking about here are necessary to deliver an inspiring, wonderfully acted piece of history to a wide audience (a fictional boss tearing down a “Colored Ladies Room” sign is more cathartic than President Franklin Roosevelt signing Executive Order 8802). But while the dramatic license taken in Hidden Figures is no more than that of similar films like The Imitation Game or The Right Stuff, a movie NASA chief historian Bill Barry has called “cringe worthy,” Hidden Figures nevertheless risks supporting the same genre of easy narratives its tagline (“Meet the women you don’t know. Behind the mission you do.”) seeks to disrupt.
Shetterly seems to anticipate these issues in the book’s epilogue:
That even Katherine Johnson’s remarkable achievements can’t quite match some of the myths that have grown up around her is a sign of the strength of the vacuum caused by the long absence of African Americans from mainstream history. For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on its black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.
This impulse to divide black people into victims and heroes has led even some positive reviews of the movie to miss the mark, treating the film as a testament to the importance of working hard in the face of adversity rather than “playing the victim.” In perhaps the movie’s most visceral depiction of Jim Crow, Dorothy Vaughan pushes her two boys past an anti-segregation protest on the way to the library, telling her children that “we’re not a part of that trouble.” Vaughan prefers the more surreptitious disobedience of stealing a book from the white section of the library to taking her, and her children’s, chances with the police and their dogs. But in the context of the film, in which social ills are solved by several superheroes rather than millions of mortals, it’s easy to imagine an audience member seeing this and thinking, “Now there is someone who would rather pull herself up by her bootstraps than blame others.” This at a time when both protest and math are as important as ever.
In an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, Johnson, now ninety-eight, says that she pursued math because, unlike in other subjects, there was a right and a wrong, because “there was a visible objective in mathematics, and you knew when you got there.” However, numbers seem to be becoming more controversial by the day. Whether measuring votes, crowds, hands, or favorability, numbers do not seem to be friends of the current administration. “Any negative polls are fake news,” the president tweeted earlier this month in response to numbers marking him the most unpopular newly elected president. And last week, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Trump administration ordered the Council of Economic Advisers to predict a sustained GDP growth of 3 to 3.5 percent, figures vastly at odds with the CBO and Federal Reserve predictions of just under 2 percent. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich was critical of the order, saying, “You just can’t do it, mathematically.”
Such a stance against reality seems self-destructive. Building a budget on faulty numbers is a recipe for disaster, and eventually, this wishful thinking disguised as math will come crashing down. But when Trump’s predictions turn out to be false, what then? Will he simply continue to calculate? Will he look for scapegoats? Will he claim that 2+2=5?
Arendt quotes Hobbes’s Leviathan:
I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, that the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square; that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry, suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.
These days, I spend much of my time tutoring local kids around Oberlin, OH, and students who visit the “math studio” at a nearby community college. Though we see everything from pre-algebra to differential equations in the studio, the toughest question we encounter is probably “Why do I have to learn this?” Different tutors favor different responses. Some focus on logical reasoning, others on problem-solving skills like filtering out unnecessary information. My own response varies. Sometimes I stress the importance of details, the fact that whether you’re diagnosing a patient, writing a program, or launching a rocket, little mistakes can mean the difference between success and failure. Sometimes I just say that taking math classes proves to employers that you’re willing to do something you hate just because you’re told to. And sometimes I echo my first professor at State, who said that we learn math the way we do because we’re still afraid of the Russians. That seems about right.
Eric Jett is a writer, designer, and teacher from Charleston, WV. He is a founding editor of Full Stop.
This post may contain affiliate links.