ON A PERSONAL NOTE/By Maramis
Some people might say that history is history and we should not need to divide it up by color or anything else. I disagree.
I disagree because there was a time when Black people were not thought of very highly, and were not even deemed to be human in some cases.
That’s one (or two) of the reasons that slavery easily took hold and lasted so long, and some of the exceptional deeds of Blacks were not even well known and certainly not part of the history we all learned.
By now, everyone knows that slavery existed, and practically everyone knows that Black men once had the right to vote in certain areas of this nation following the Revolutionary War, but while Whites were increasingly gaining their voting rights back then it was being taken away from Blacks state by state; the only states in which they never lost their right to vote were Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.
Segregation was rampant following that war, especially in Philadelphia, where Blacks were excluded from schools, concert halls, public transportation, churches, and other public places, and while it changed from place to place, segregation lingered on for many years.
It was still ongoing when I was in school, and that was in the state of New York. I saw what it did to my Black friend.
Many of us can remember Oscar-winning movies that were made around the subject of discrimination or segregation. Those movies are not easy to watch.
The movie, A Patch of Blue, for example, starring Sidney Portier, showed how Blacks were viewed by many Whites, and how the treatment of one blind 18-year-old girl, no matter how she was treated by the men who came to visit her mother, was preferred to the kindness shown by a Black friend, played by Portier.
But the movie that really got my attention because it was about a time that I lived through and even very near the place where we lived—Langley Air Force Base, which is about 3 or 4 miles from the NASA Research Center, the very place where most of Hidden Figures — the story, based on the non-fiction book written by Margot Lee Shetterly, a Black fiction writer who started her book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women
Who Helped Win the Space Race, in 2010, and which she finished years later and published on Sept. 6, 2016. It became an instant success and reached number one on The New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers list, was quickly made into a three times Oscar-nominated movie that was released on Christmas Day, 2016, a little more than two weeks
after John Glenn passed away. It also got the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction in 2017.
But although Margot Lee Shetterly obviously is a talented author, my commentary is more about what the movie made from her book depicted about segregation and how Blacks, especially Black women, were treated and viewed among the “genteel” Whites who worked at NASA.
To me, the ‘60s do not seem that long ago when we consider that during those early years, segregation was a major thing, even among the highly educated. It might be hard to believe how people viewed Blacks back then; but it’s good to be reminded because what we don’t personally remember or learn from history, we may just skip over as if it never happened.
While we know that Hollywood takes some liberties when making a movie, even based on a true story, such as Ms. Shetterly’s wonderful book about three brilliant Black women who worked at NASA, there is no denying that most of the scenes she wrote about, based on her first-hand knowledge directly from some of the women who worked there
themselves, coupled with information she got from her father, who was a research scientist at NASA and who worked with many of the book’s main characters, rang very true.
The first three years there at NASA all “colored women” were not only segregated from the mainstream team of employees there, they were considered—and called—”computers”; not computer operators or computer wizards, or the mathematicians that they were, but just “computers.”
The star of the movie (and the main character in the book), Katherine Johnson, was a mathematical genius even as a child, and that was the field she entered, landing a job at NASA and working on the space program in the pool with other computers (Black women), behind the scenes.
But I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow synopsis of the movie; hopefully you will watch Hidden Figures for yourself. There are only a couple of scenes that I am going to elaborate on to help you get a feel for what those particular Black women went through.
There was a scene or two about the coffee pot, and how no one felt comfortable letting Katherine get her coffee from the same pot. She had to have her own small separate pot. Just another version of the “colored” and Whites only” separate water fountains.
The situation that really got to me, though, and I hope those who read this can relate, is her need to use the restroom and no one thought enough about such a need that a Black woman would have and hence there was no “colored restroom” in the building where she worked. Here is a quote from the movie as she explains this fact to the head honcho, Mr. Harrison — including in her comments what she was told that women are
supposed to wear on the job: “There are no colored bathrooms in this building or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that?
I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself. And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below my knees, my heels, and a simple string of pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay coloreds enough to afford pearls!
And I work like a dog, day and night, living off of coffee from a pot none of you wanna touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.”
If you’ve ever needed to get to a bathroom as quickly as possible—and it’s only in your house—can you imagine having to traverse a half mile, up and down halls, stairs, and along walkways just to get to the building where you could go, and through wind and rain, both ways, when that’s the weather of the day, since you also have to go back to your work area.
While that episode may or may not be based on fact, the fact is that Blacks were segregated in many ways, and water fountains, bathrooms, and even the coffee break area were not the only areas that were not equally available to Blacks. Yet those three Black women, about whom Margot Lee Shetterly wrote, not only did an amazing job within the narrow field they were allowed to operate in while working at NASA, they showed that they had what it takes, and without their help, the space program would likely not have advanced at the rate it did.
Hopefully most people, by now, especially those of the White persuasion, realize that Black women (as this story shows) not only can be brilliant, but can add so much to something even as precise and important as the space program.
For Pete’s sake, when do we really get to say and believe that we are not to judge a person by the color of their skin? Are we still that ignorant? And those comments go out to all of us, Black and White
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Maramis Choufani is the Managing Editor of the Las Vegas Tribune. She writes a weekly column in this newspaper. To contact Maramis, email her at email@example.com.