As excitement continues to build around the highlyanticipated Sept. 6 release of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” no one is more excited than the author. After all, the major motion picture, bearing the book’s name, will hit movie theaters by January 2017. But, according to the doctoral student at University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, that was only part of her reason for excitement.
“It’s like a dream come true,” she told the AFRO. “To have your book, I mean your first book, made into a movie . . . But for me, it’s really about the history. I fell in love with it. I’m just in awe that these women did this.”
Shetterly said that as she researched for her book, she was “startled” by the number of women she found who had worked as mathematicians and “computers,” cloistered within NASA’s Langley Research Center, during the space program’s early days. “There were scores of Black women, but, then, the larger group of all the women (Black, White, and otherwise) was huge,” she said. “And honestly, very few of the White women got their due as well . . . They were like no big deal. Men were the engineers. Women were the computers and mathematicians . . .”
While writing the book, her passion for the research, the deepest respect for the women’s work and the determination that they gain their rightful place in U.S. History, led Shetterly to launch The Human Computer Project (thehumancomputerproject.com) in 2014, to tell their stories. “I really want to, as a course of this research, try to recover all of the names of all the women who did this work and who really were the ground forces of the space program. And, not just the space program, but airplanes [too] . . . ,” said Shetterly, who went on to explain, “This started out being all about airplanes you know, and these women were the ones who made airplanes safer. They did all of the calculations to make them fly faster, higher . . . ,” which she said is something that she thinks about each time she boards an airplane.
Shetterly’s dedication to the history of the women known as the West Computers (Black) and East Computers (White) goes beyond the book, and she doesn’t want to leave anyone out. So, with her publisher’s permission, Shetterly plans to publish all of her notes in full, available to anyone, on her website (margotleeshetterly.com).
From the sale of the book’s concept prior to its completion to its immediate movie deal offer, support for Hidden Figures and its research has been high. Shetterly credits the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as early supporters and the Hampton Roads Chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History as founding sponsors of The Human Computer Project.
She is also immensely grateful to Black newspapers (Norfolk Journal and Guide archives, Baltimore AfroAmerican, Pittsburgh Courier, and Chicago Defender) who covered the community, preserved the history and allowed her go back and relive an era. “This book would not have been possible in the same way without the Black press, who covered these women, these communities in detail and in full and preserved it for people like me to go back and pick up.”
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race will be published September 6 but is available for pre-order from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and other book distributors.