Discussion Questions for Hidden Figures
1. Think about the people you learned about in school. How many of them were women? How many were minorities of either gender? There were likely a handful of people with disabilities and the few Native Americans who were often mythologized. Why might it be important to learn about a variety of people?
2. What was special about the time period in the book that made it possible for those first 5 women to get hired? What had led to their ability to perform these jobs? What were the support systems that gave them the confidence to advocate for themselves in the face of discrimination?
3. The Black Colleges and Universities – Howard, West Virginia State, Arkansas Agricultural, Hampton Institute, Wilburforce University, Virginia State College for Negroes, Prairie View University – had some excellent professors because those same professors were not offered positions in other universities. Would these women have gotten the same education if they had attended white universities? Were you surprised at the roadblocks that blacks faced when trying to get advanced degrees? What roadblocks are currently in place for minorities?
4. As the story unfolds, the Civil Rights Movement is gaining strength due to court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, Morgan v. Virginia (interstate bus travel), and Alston v. School Board of Norfolk (black teacher salaries.) This results in a backlash in Virginia that even involved closing public schools rather than allowing integration. How much of this story did you know and how much were you surprised by? What backlash do we see today?
5. Is this true now: “until the United States cured its … disease of segregation, violence and oppression that plagued America like a chronic bout of consumption …. it would never merit the position of world leadership.” pg. 152
6. Women’s work has often meant lesser pay. Calling a woman a “computer” instead of a mathematician, denying women promotions to the higher grades, were all ways of keeping the higher paying jobs available just to men. How much has this changed? Has it changed at all for minorities?
7.The story of Virginia’s Langley Research Center has been shadowed by the story of NASA in Florida, Texas and California. How was Langley able to change with the times as it went from support for the war to spearheading the dawn of the space race? Should we have used the money to improve the schools and living conditions for Americans rather than go into space?
8. The women at the center of this story were all involved in community service, helping others get jobs, places to live, education and more. How did their memberships in Black sororities such as AKA, in their churches, and in Girl Scouts play in making them such influential role models?
About the Author : Margot Lee Shetterly In Her Own Words
I'm the author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow/HarperCollins). I'm also the founder of The Human Computer Project, an endeavor that is recovering the names and accomplishments of all of the women who worked as computers, mathematicians, scientists and engineers at the NACA and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s.
I'm a Hampton, Virginia native, University of Virginia graduate, an entrepreneur, and an intrepid traveler who spent 11 years living in Mexico. I currently live in Charlottesville, VA.
We all know what a scientist looks like: a wild-eyed person in a white lab coat and utilitarian eyeglasses, wearing a pocket protector and holding a test tube. Mostly male. Usually white. Even Google, our hive mind, confirms the prevailing view. Just do an image search for the word “scientist”. For me, growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the face of science was brown like mine. My dad was a NASA lifer, a career Langley Research Center scientist who became an internationally respected climate expert. Five of my father’s seven siblings were engineers or technologists. My father’s best friend was an aeronautical engineer. Our next door neighbor was a physics professor. There were mathematicians at our church, sonic boom experts in my mother’s sorority and electrical engineers in my parents’ college alumni associations. There were also black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors and contractors, black shoe repair owners, wedding planners, real estate agents and undertakers, the occasional black lawyer and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.