The line “You don’t know me” from several songs keeps running through my head as I watch supposedly astute people pursue their vision of what makes the United States a great nation. They operate from what I know to be false data about everything from black people to immigrants to climate change.
I was thinking about this as I watched the movie “Hidden Figures” over the weekend, and it hit me: This story of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s is more than entertainment. It is also a fascinating lesson in how even people revered as the brightest minds can, at the same time, be small-minded, stunted in their development by deeply ingrained racism, sexism and other “isms.” Just think how much human capital is left untapped because those in charge are so small-minded.
From the exaggerated deference — “Yes, suh”/”No, suh” with eyes cast down — that three brilliant black women must employ as a survival tool, to the “colored” sections of city buses and libraries, to the “colored ladies room” and even the “colored” coffee pot in a NASA work space, we get a glimpse in “Hidden Figures” of what life could be like when black people entered what white people took for granted was their world. In contrast to such indignities, we see a parallel alternative reality: family, communal and social life of the type many white people were still refusing to believe existed some 20 years later upon the debut of a television series about a black family headed by a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a lawyer.
To have to prove this even today is beyond annoying; but, as they say, it is what it is.
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You see on screen how a black woman is regarded as a peer only after she’s proved herself more brilliant at calculating trajectories for landing spacecraft than anybody else. Only after another black woman has mastered the mysteries of programming a new-fangled IBM computer is she called “Mrs. Vaughn” rather than merely “Dorothy” by the white administrator she’d always referred to as “Mrs. Mitchell.”
“You have to be twice as good” is still ingrained in black children and in girls of all stripes.
Because of this film, I have heard stories of black technicians in the 1970s being confronted at Procter & Gamble with, “I didn’t know they hired (n-word).” I have learned of a woman being discouraged and even denied academic support in the late 1980s/early 1990s when she declared her major in mathematical statistics at American University and then pursued a graduate degree in applied mathematics at Johns Hopkins. Other such testimonies are now surfacing — as are the stories of the women of “Hidden Figures.”
White privilege, which seems incomprehensible as a concept to many of its beneficiaries, is depicted on screen, too. The mathematician Katherine Johnson, played by the actress Taraji P. Henson, has to leave her work station and jog in heels clear across the NASA campus to find the “colored ladies room.” Only after she is being chewed out by her boss, played by Kevin Costner, does she explain her noticeable absence from her desk a few times a day. Of course, it had never occurred to the Costner character or to any of the other whites — including a woman administrator — that she bore such a burden while still running circles around them mathematically.
There are glimmers of hope for enlightenment in the film. When the Costner character hears Katherine Johnson’s story, he marches to the “colored ladies room” and knocks the sign down with a sledgehammer. After announcing that all restrooms were now assigned by gender not race, he declares: “At NASA, we all pee the same color.” The message here is that while the battles are fought in the halls of Congress and in the courts of law and public opinion, each of us has it in our power to take steps to affirm our common humanity.
Maybe a White House that screened “The Birth of a Nation” in Woodrow Wilson’s time and “Selma” in Barack Obama’s time can benefit from screening recent films like “Loving” and “Fences” and “Hidden Figures.”
Though the president-elect has expressed disdain for the “liberal movie people” who produce them, I’ll still hold out hope that a day at the movies will be revealing to some of those poised to lead our nation — because, clearly, they don’t know a whole lot of us.
E.R. Shipp is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication.
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