Nails done, brows done, hair long, dress short, heels high. The Mecca of superficiality that our young girls strive to reach is pursued with the determination and will of an Olympic athlete. Self-esteem and self-image start with the word ‘self’ for a reason. How you feel about yourself and how comfortable you are with yourself are functions of inner, as well as outer beauty. For decades the media has defined beauty for all women by images of tall, thin blondes, lips and eyelashes flawlessly made up, dressed in trendy expensive clothing; with no emphasis placed on inner beauty.
For the sake of helping our young girls form multi-layered views of self by seeing other types of women to emulate, Black America, take your daughters to see Hidden Figures. If you haven’t heard of it, the movie is based on a true story that focuses on the contributions of three amazing, brilliant Black women: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn. These women played instrumental roles to help launch the first American astronauts into space. The title Hidden Figures signifies the fact that these Black women were, until recently, buried or hidden in history, although as prominent individuals or figures they played major roles by using figures, or numbers. They were mathematicians, each with a special interest and expertise in engineering, physics and computers. They were also mothers and wives during segregation; a time when whites told Blacks where they could or couldn’t go to school and what types of jobs they could or couldn’t do. These intelligent women were given a chance to display their exceptional talents to the world only because white America needed them during the Space Race, a crucial time in this country’s history. Hidden Figures is a depiction of what Black women have consistently done in this country since our arrival in 1619 in Hampton, VA, where coincidentally the first Africans arrived in this country and the events of this movie take place; we have persevered and triumphed despite the unmasked obstacles of physical and metaphorical shackles.
As a young Black girl growing up in Hampton, VA, I realized at a young age that I liked learning. I was curious and I wanted to know how stuff worked. This was normal to me. I was and still am fascinated with gadgets, gears and all things mechanical. I am also interested in science, and formally educated as a Ph.D. physicist. I received a great education in the local school system as far as reading, math and science were concerned. What I didn’t get was knowledge of, or exposure to role models that look like me. I feel robbed of a special type of mentoring that I didn’t get as a Black girl interested in science and math; having access to these Black women mathematicians and scientists who were literally within the same city limits as I was with this phenomenal story to tell, and example to set. They knew it was okay for a young Black girl to want a train set for Christmas or take bikes apart. They also knew that science and math were not just for white men. White men knew it too, but they apparently didn’t want me to know.
With STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) proficiency and interest currently at the forefront of educational priorities, math and coding are focus areas that many organizations are now promoting and supporting, particularly for young Black girls. It IS ok to be curious about numbers, computers and the stars.
This is more than just a movie about math and rockets; it is a torch to be passed to the next generation and the generation after that. Black women like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn are real, and now the world must acknowledge them and Black girls that follow them.
Take your daughters to see Hidden Figures!
Dr. Trina Coleman is an educator, scientist, entrepreneur, and public speaker. Twitter: @drtlc @mathguistics