Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 124

Here are a few excerpts from a book I recently read, "Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space," by Margot Lee Shetterly:

On one such occasion, two years after Mary joined West Computing, Dorothy Vaughan sent Mary to the East Side, staffing her on a project alongside several white computers. The routines of the computing work had become familiar to Mary, but the geography of the East Side was not. Her morning at the East Side job proceeded without incident—until nature called. 

“Can you direct me to the bathroom?” Mary asked the white women. 

They responded to Mary with giggles. How would they know where to find her bathroom? The nearest bathroom was unmarked, which meant it was available to any of the white women and off-limits to the black women. There were certainly colored bathrooms on the East Side, but with most black professionals concentrated on the West Side, and fewer new buildings on the East Side, Mary might need a map to find them. Angry and humiliated, she stormed off on her own to find her way to her restroom. 

Negotiating racial boundaries was a daily fact of Negro life. Mary wasn’t naive about the segregation at Langley—it was no different than anywhere in town. Yet she couldn’t shake this particular incident. It was the proximity to professional equality that gave the slight such a surprising and enduring sting. Unlike the public schools, where minuscule budgets and ramshackle facilities exposed the sham of “separate but equal,” the Langley employee badge supposedly gave Mary access to the same workplace as her white counterparts. Compared to the white girls, she came to the lab with as much education, if not more. She dressed each day as if she were on her way to a meeting with the president. She trained the girls in her Girl Scout troop to believe that they could be anything, and she went to lengths to prevent negative stereotypes of their race from shaping their internal views of themselves and other Negroes. It was difficult enough to rise above the silent reminders of Colored signs on the bathroom doors and cafeteria tables. But to be confronted with the prejudice so blatantly, there in that temple to intellectual excellence and rational thought, by something so mundane, so ridiculous, so universal as having to go to the bathroom . . . In the moment when the white women laughed at her, Mary had been demoted from professional mathematician to a second-class human being, reminded that she was a black girl whose piss wasn’t good enough for the white pot.

Black newspapers and their readers wasted no time in making the link between America’s inadequacy in space and the dreadful conditions facing many black students in the South. “While we were forming mobs to drive an Autherine Lucy [the black woman who integrated the University of Alabama in 1956] from an Alabama campus, the Russians were compelling ALL children to attend the best possible schools,” opined the Chicago Defender. Until the United States cured its “Mississippiitis”—that disease of segregation, violence, and oppression that plagued America like a chronic bout of consumption—the paper declared, it would never merit the position of world leadership. An editorial in the Cleveland Call and Post echoed that sentiment. “Who can say that it was not the institution of the Jim Crow School that has deprived this nation of the black scientist who might have solved the technological kinks delaying our satellite launching?” wrote the paper’s editor and publisher, Charles H. Loeb.

Mission Control set the candle on fire at 9:37 a.m., early enough for the East Coast brain busters to take in the big event and get to work, then spend the rest of the day getting the color commentary. If the space shots hadn’t exactly become commonplace since Alan Shepard’s first foray, they happened often enough for talking heads like CBS’s Walter Cronkite to wield the jargon of max Q and apogee and trans-Earth injection with the same nonchalance as the flight operations crew in the trenches of Mission Control. Still, the broadcasters knew—everyone in the audience knew—that even with twenty-six manned flights under NASA’s belt, this was different, and they struggled to come up with superlatives to capture the moment. Cronkite gushed unabashedly, putting the magnitude into the context of the great machines of war and transportation that had transformed the American century: the mighty Saturn V rocket consumed the equivalent of ninety-eight railroad cars’ worth of fuel; it propelled a craft that weighed as much as a nuclear submarine with the equivalent thrust of 543 fighter jets. The United States would spend $24 billion on Apollo, in order to plunge the sword into the heart of the Soviet Union’s ambitions in space. 

Not everyone shared Cronkite’s exuberance. All that money—and for what? many wondered. So much money spent so that between 1969 and 1972 a dozen white men could take the express train to a lifeless world? Why, Negro women and men could barely go to the next state without worrying about predatory police, restaurants that refused to serve them, and service stations that wouldn’t let them buy gas or use the bathroom. Now they wanted to talk about a white man on the Moon? “A rat done bit my sister Nell, with Whitey on the Moon,” rapped performer Gil Scott-Heron in a song that stormed the airwaves that year. 

At the beginning of the decade, the space program and the civil rights movement had shared a similar optimism, a certain idealism about American democracy and the country’s newfound drive to distribute the blessings of democracy to all its citizens. On the cusp of the 1970s, as the space program approached its zenith, the civil rights movement—or rather many of the goals it had set out to achieve—were beginning to feel as if they were in a state of suspended animation. There were real and shining triumphs, certainly: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 pried Jim Crow’s legal grip off the country’s workplaces, modes of transportation, public spaces, and voting box. But the economic and social mobility that had been held hostage by that legal discrimination remained stuck.

Star Trek landed in American homes on September 8, 1966, an NBC network prime-time program. While NASA and the Project Gemini astronauts worked their way through twelve missions in the 1960s, in the fictional 2260s, the starship Enterprise set off from Earth on a peacekeeping and deep-space exploration mission, manned by a multinational, multiracial, mixed-gender crew. The corps, led by the suave, unflappable Captain James T. Kirk, included natives of an advanced United Earth, its history of poverty and war now in the past. Enemies in a former Earth Age labored side by side as colleagues and fellow citizens. Chekov, the Russian ensign; Sulu, the Japanese American helmsman; and the half-human, half-Vulcan first officer, Mr. Spock, added an interstellar touch of diversity. And there, on the bridge, a vision in a red minidress opened viewers’ minds to what a truly democratic future might look like. Lieutenant Uhura, a black woman and proud citizen of the United States of Africa, served as the Enterprise’s communications officer. 

Lieutenant Uhura, portrayed by the actress Nichelle Nichols, executed her duties with aplomb, managing the ship’s communications with other ships and planets. When the first season ended in 1967, Nichols tendered her resignation to the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, so that she could spend more time tending to her Broadway career. The producer, who wanted to keep Nichols in the cast, refused her resignation, asking her to take the weekend to mull it over. 

That weekend Nichols attended a celebrity NAACP civil rights fund-raiser in Los Angeles. One of the event’s coordinators let her know that “her greatest fan,” a fellow attendee, wanted to meet her. Expecting some eager, socially awkward adolescent, Nichols instead found herself face-to-face with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: King was a Trekkie! It was the only show that he and his wife, Coretta, allowed their children to watch, and he never missed an episode. Nichols thanked him for his effusive praise before mentioning almost casually that she had decided to leave the show. The words had barely escaped her lips before the Reverend interrupted her cold. 

“You can’t leave the show,” King said to Nichols. “We are there because you are there.” Black people have been imagined in the future, he continued, emphasizing to the actress how important and groundbreaking a fact that was. Furthermore, he told her, he had studied the Starfleet’s command structure and believed that it mirrored that of the US Air Force, making Uhura—a black woman!—fourth in command of the ship. 

“This is not a black role, this is not a female role,” he said to her. “This is a unique role that brings to life what we are marching for: equality.” The rest of Nichols’ weekend was a fog of anger and sadness: what right did Dr. King have to upend her career plans? Eventually, she moved from resignation to conviction. Nichols returned to Gene Roddenberry’s office on Monday morning and asked him to tear up the resignation letter. 

How could Katherine not be a fan? Everything about space had fascinated her from the very beginning, and there, on television, was a black woman in space, doing her job and doing it well. A black person and a woman both, but also just Lieutenant Uhura, the most qualified person for the job. Katherine, in fact, thought science—and space—was the ideal place for talented people of any background. The results were what mattered, she told classrooms of students. Math was either right or wrong, and if you got it right, it didn’t matter what color you were.

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