Category: African-American

The Hate U Give

Cover image for The Hate U Give by Angie Thomasby Angie Thomas

ISBN 978-0-06-249853-3

“It seems like they always talk about what he may have said, what he may have done, what he may not have done. I didn’t know a dead person could be charged in his own murder, you know?”

Starr Carter is a girl with a foot in two worlds. By day, she attends Williamson, a suburban prep school where she is one of only two black students in her year. In the evening, she goes home to Garden Heights, the city’s poor, black neighbourhood, where she has lived all her life. She is one person at home and another person at school, because she can’t be too “bougie” in the neighbourhood, or too “ghetto” at school. But the wall she has carefully built between her two selves begins to crumble when she is the only witness to a police officer shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil. The killing gains national headlines as protestors take to the streets to protest the murder of yet another unarmed black boy. In the day’s following Khalil’s death, Starr faces a choice between remaining silent, and speaking up. But even if she can find her voice, will it be enough to get justice for Khalil?

One of my favourite aspects of The Hate U Give was Starr’s family. Her mother is a nurse, and her father is an ex-gang member who now runs a convenience store. Her mother wants to move the family out of Garden Heights, while her father is determined to remain in the neighbourhood and contribute to its betterment. She has a younger brother who isn’t old enough to quite grasp what is going on, and an older half-brother who is fully part of their family, yet still connected to his mother and other sisters. Her uncle is a police officer who works in the same department as the man who killed Khalil. Starr’s family feels warm and incredibly real, complicated, and human. Most of the story’s more didactic moments are seamlessly written into conversations with her parents as they try to help her through the aftermath of Khalil’s murder. Starr’s father, Big Mav, was perhaps my favourite character, especially with his theory about how Hogwarts houses are like gangs. After getting out of the gang life himself, Big Mav is determined to keep his children safe, but he struggles with how to do that while also keeping them connected to where they came from.

While I loved Starr’s family best, her peer relationships are equally notable. Even before Khalil’s death, Starr notices that her relationship with her best friends, Maya and Hailey, is changing. Angie Thomas really captures the painful experience of growing apart from childhood friends. In the case of Khalil, Starr is left to regret that she let him slip largely out of her life, and now he is gone forever. And as she watches Hailey and Maya react to Khalil’s murder—without knowing she is the witness—she is left with difficult choices about whether or not her school friendships can survive the class and cultural divides between them. For the past year, Starr has also been hiding from her father the fact that she is dating Chris, a white classmate, and the time has come for her to face up to her complicated feelings about this relationship. Starr learns a lot by talking things through with her dad, but she also has to figure out how to have difficult conversations with her friends.

Someone who we don’t get to know very well is Khalil himself. His murder is the book’s inciting incident, so he is alive only for the first couple of chapters. Afterward, there is a stark conflict between Starr’s memory of her friend, and the image of him portrayed in the media. He becomes a symbol more than a person. While we learn a few new facts over the course of the story that help flesh Khalil out, he is still someone we did not know until he was already gone—which of course is true of the real-life victims of police brutality. I was reminded of Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” in The Fire This Time, in which she writes about how victims are transformed from individuals to evidence, a process which their loved ones are helpless to prevent.

The Hate U Give is a brutal coming-of-age story about the harsh realities that face young black men and women in America. It is fundamentally about identity, and Starr’s struggle to bring the two halves of herself together. But it is also about families, communities, and building relationships. The strength of this narrative is in the way it balances the hard topics—racism, police violence, gangs, drugs—with themes of family, friendship, justice, and love.

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Forgotten

Cover image for Forgotten by Linda Hervieuxby Linda Hervieux

ISBN 978-0-06-231379-9

“For many African Americans, their parting view of Lady Liberty was a bittersweet reminder that they were off to fight, and perhaps die, to protect freedoms afar that they had never known at home.”

Watching movies about World War II, you might be forgiven for thinking that no African American soldiers served in that war. Yet more than two thousand African Americans were on Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day, a mere fraction of the 130 000 sent to England over the preceding months in anticipation of the invasion of the continent. Most of the African Americans at D-Day were service troops, working as stevedores and truck drivers, but one black combat unit participated, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Over six-hundred men strong, the battalion was spread out over more than 125 landing craft arriving on the beaches on June 6, and in the weeks that followed. Their job was to raise a defensive curtain into the skies, protecting the invading forces from low altitude bombing runs and strafing by the Luftwaffe. Yet there is nary a black face to be seen anywhere in the storming of Omaha Beach depicted in such films as Saving Private Ryan. But they were there, and Forgotten is Linda Hervieux’s effort to write those men back into their rightful place in history.

Hervieux became aware of the existence of the 320th after writing a story about veteran Bill Dabney, who was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Organizers believed that Dabney was likely the last living member of the battalion, but when Hervieux dug into that claim, she discovered that it was unfounded. Moreover, time was running out to capture the stories of these men; most of the remaining veterans would be in their nineties. Military historians warned Hervieux, a journalist, that there were not enough records to support a book about the unit, but Hervieux persisted, unearthing at least twelve 320th veterans who were still alive and able to talk about their experiences. She also uncovered the only proof that a member of the 320th was recommended for the Medal of Honor, medic Waverly Woodson, who passed away in 2005.

Forgotten opens on Atlantic City in 1941, where Wilson Caldwell Monk—future member of the 320th—was waiting tables on the Boardwalk. Though New Jersey was a northern state, Atlantic City practiced a form of de facto segregation; the restaurants where Monk worked during the Season would never serve a black man. In addition to Dabney and Woodson, Monk is one of the main figures in the book, along with Henry Parham, who hailed from sharecropping country, and was working as a porter in Richmond, Virginia when he received his draft notice. Dabney, Monk, and Parham were all alive for Hervieux to interview, while the accounts of Woodson are based on newspaper articles from the period, and interviews he gave before his death, as well as the cooperation of his widow.

After the players are introduced, the first third of the book is largely contextual, including sections on Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, the history of black military units, and the use of various types of balloons in the military, beginning with the Napoleonic wars. Although she talks about Jim Crow generally, Hervieux also examines its specific effect on the military experience. The army itself was segregated, and most of the training camps were located in the South. Far from being welcomed into the military, blacks were discouraged because they were believed to be less brave and less intelligent than white people. Black soldiers were regularly insulted and even assaulted, as white Southerners struggled with the cognitive dissonance of their respect for the military colliding with their dehumanization of African Americans. A black man in uniform was perceived as a provocation, a demand for respect, and the situation was so fraught that trains carrying black soldiers through the South traveled with curtains drawn, because white Southerners were known to shoot at trains carrying African American troops.

Perhaps the most revelatory section comes in the middle of the book, which covers the 320th deploying overseas, landing in Scotland, and proceeding south. They were encamped in Oxfordshire and Wales, where they were part of the growing mass of American forces being squirreled away in anticipation of Operation Overlord, as the invasion of France was known among the planners. Britons, by and large, did not discriminate against the black soldiers, and in some cases even preferred them, finding that they were usually more polite than their white counterparts, and better accustomed to the hard living conditions imposed by war-time rationing. In England, a black man could drink in any pub, go to any church, and dance with any girl, unencumbered by the colour of his skin. But this treatment caused tension with white American troops, who had somehow expected that Britons would participate in American-style segregation and subjugation. In fact, Britons roundly refused, and even raised public outcry against the harsher treatment they saw African American soldiers receiving from the American military command.

Only the last few chapters of Forgotten deal with the event itself, the crossing of the channel, the landing at D-Day, and the long fight to control the beaches. Nothing went as planned that day, and the first 320th men on the ground, including Waverly Woodson, were more infantry troops than balloon men, given the amount of artillery fire that was still underway. Fortunately most of the Luftwaffe was elsewhere, and later waves of 320th men were able to raise their balloons. Hervieux also briefly deals with the aftermath of the war, recounting the difficulties African American veterans faced in accessing the benefits of the GI Bill. Black veterans were still unable to obtain loans from most banks, and while educational benefits were available, African Americans were shunted into vocational training programs of dubious quality, and often emerged to find no jobs available to them.

Anyone who is very knowledgeable about either African American history or military history will probably find that this book retreads a lot of ground in an effort to contextualize the experiences of the men of the 320th. Perhaps due to the sparseness of the military records, Hervieux relies on this background material to flesh out the narrative, as a military history cannot rest on personal accounts alone. Yet if anything she is simultaneously a little too wary of personalizing the narrative, and letting the personalities of the men shine through. It is hard to get a good sense of them individually, and that is a bit of shame. Nevertheless, Hervieux successfully sheds light on the contributions of a group that has almost been erased from history.

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The Parable of the Sower

Cover image for The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butlerby Octavia Butler

ISBN 9780446675505

“I’ve never felt that I was making any of this up—not the name, Earthseed, not any of it. I mean, I’ve never felt that it was anything other than real: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation.”

Lauren Olamina is part of the generation of children who do not remember the world before. Before the water shortages, and the walled communities, and the drug addicts who burn anything and everything just to watch the flames. Before the California-Oregon border was closed, and Alaska began to talk about seceding. Lauren believes the Earth is dying, and that sooner or later, humanity will have to take to the stars in order to survive. And Lauren means to survive. But how can she convince those around her that they must be ready, that the good times her father and step-mother talk about are never coming back? As the world outside the wall continues to crumble, Lauren hones the philosophy she believes to be humanity’s only hope, becoming the lonely prophet of a new religion born from the ashes of American civilization.

Although originally published in 1993, Parable of the Sower is set in what is now the near future, opening in the year 2024. Lauren has reluctantly submitted to being baptized into her father’s church, even though, for the past three years, she has not been a follower of his god. Rather, she has been slowly laying out the tenets of her own religious philosophy, premised on the seductive idea that God is Change. Therefore, every human action is the act of shaping God, whether deliberately, or carelessly. Lauren calls her religion Earthseed, and believes that the ultimate “destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” Lauren makes her first attempt to articulate this new philosophy to her best friend Joanna, but is repulsed, and so returns to biding her time behind the walls of the struggling middle class neighbourhood led by her father, as the world outside continues to deteriorate.

The story is told in the style of a diary kept by Lauren as she is growing up, and beginning to hash out her ideas about the world. She is coming of age at a difficult time, and constructs and elaborate system around herself that gives her hope for the future. The early part of the novel is spent inside the walls of her disintegrating community, as her father and step-mother struggle to keep things together, unable to admit that the old world is not coming back. Lauren also pens a lot of poetic or biblical passages, painfully earnest verses that try to convey her growing ideology, and her dream of sharing it with others.  But ultimately, she cannot achieve her destiny until the cataclysm finally comes that cleaves her from her home, and she becomes a sort of traveling prophet, gathering around her a group of people who are willing to form a community based on her unusual philosophy.

The Parable of the Sower is a complex feat of world-building. Butler creates both a crumbling dystopian vision of the United States, and simultaneously incarnates Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy out of that wreckage. She slowly and carefully balances the two, first introducing the reader to Lauren’s world, and then going deeper into her protagonist’s heart and mind to reveal her unusual belief system. What becomes clear in all of this is how much the more recent surge in the popularity of dystopian fiction stands on Butler’s shoulders. More eerie still is the resonance with reality; the novel’s presidential candidate is running on the promise to make America great again. Readers of contemporary dystopian will find much that is familiar here, despite the fact that this novel is nearly twenty-five years old.
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Binti: Home

binti-homeby Nnedi Okorafor

eISBN 978-0-7653-9310-4

“Tribal hatred lived, even in Oomza Uni. And today that hatred, after simmering for a year, was coming to a head.”

Having succeeded in negotiating a tentative peace between the Meduse and Oomza Uni after the attack on the Third Fish transport, Binti and Okwu have settled in as students on the university planet. Binti is supposed to be a master harmonizer, but ever since the attack, she has been experiencing violent mood swings, feeling almost uncontrollable flashes of anger that have convinced her she is unclean. To purge herself, Binti decides it is time to travel home, and make the traditional Himba women’s pilgrimage. But returning to Earth will mean making her first space trip since the attack, and facing up to the consequences of defying tradition when she chose to leave her family behind to attend university.

Binti returns to Earth after a year at Oomza Uni, with Okwu as her travelling companion. Okwu is the first Meduse to ever visit Earth for a peaceful purpose, and their arrival at a Khoush spaceport causes a great stir. This serves to highlight just how tentative the peace with the Meduse is. Over their first year of study, Okwu has been in constant conflict with its human teacher, and Binti has the sense that the fact that war has been forbidden only makes the Meduse want it more. Despite being regarded as a hero at Oomza Uni, her friendship with Okwu has prevented her from making any other close friends there.

Although Nnedi Okorafor begins Home with a fight, for the most part, it is a quieter affair than the first Binti  novella, focusing on interpersonal relationships, including social and familial constructs and traditions. When Binti comes home, she must face the fact that she has disturbed the line of succession in her family, abdicating her place as her father’s heir in the astrolabe business, and also forfeit her position as a woman within Himba society. No man will want to marry her, as her old friend Dele makes abundantly clear, and her family’s emotions are a warring mix of pride in her accomplishments and anger at her abandonment of their way of life.

The most interesting part of Home takes place when Binti makes an unexpected detour to visit the Desert People, known among themselves as the Enyi Zinariya. Binti’s father is descended from them, but this is considered a shameful fact, never spoken of, and Binti is embarrassed by the darker skin and bushier hair she inherited from her father, though her hair has now been replaced by Meduse okuoko. After highlighting the tension between the Khoush and the Himba in Binti, Okorafor takes it a step further here, exploring the people who are looked down upon by the Himba, just as the Khoush look down on them. In making peace with herself after the traumatic events that took place aboard the Third Fish, Binti must confront the part of her heritage she has denied and been taught to be ashamed of.

The character and world-building in Home may be stronger than the action, but the pace picks up in the last five percent of the book, heading towards a cliff-hanger ending that promises a more eventful third installment in the Binti series. Whereas in the first volume, Binti looked out to the stars and dared to imagine a bigger life for herself, here she must come home into order to look within, and reconcile her dreams with her roots. While Binti is beginning to feel a bit more like a serialized novel than stand-alone novellas, I nevertheless look forward to the next volume. The third Binti story is titled The Night Masquerade, and is due out in September 2017.

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You Can’t Touch My Hair

Cover image for You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinsonby Phoebe Robinson

ISBN 978-0-14-312920-2

“In fact, throughout the Obama years, there has been, at the very best, resistance to change, and at the very worst, a palpable regression in the way the country views and handles—or more accurately refuses to handle—race.”

Phoebe Robinson is a writer and stand-up comedian, as well as the co-host of the comedy podcast 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams. You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of humourous essays that draw on Robinson’s experiences as a black woman, including “How to Avoid Being the Black Friend,” and “Uppity,” an essay that explores coded language and white guilt. In a style replete with pop-culture references and internet slang, Robinson recounts her relationship with her hair, highlights black hair in the media over the past thirty years, and addresses some of the racism she experiences on a day-to-day basis.

Robinson’s essays hit a range of tones, from mostly humourous to mostly serious. I read the book in print form, but I often found myself wondering if some parts of the book would have been better on the audio version, which Robinson performs. Her more serious essays hit home hard in print form, but delivery is a huge part of comedy. I listened to a couple episodes of 2 Dope Queens after I finished You Can’t Touch My Hair, and suddenly I could much better imagine how Robinson would deliver the material she had written. This might be less of a problem for people who are already familiar with Robinson’s comedy and then pick up her book, but this was my introduction to her. However some of the pieces are definitely best suited to print form, for example the second essay is about black hair in the media, and includes a lot of photos.

Two of the more serious pieces that hit hard were “Uppity” and “The Myth of the Angry Black Woman.” In “Uppity,” Robinson recounts an acting job where she was called uppity by the white director when she asked for a minute to review her lines. After she called out the director, he apologized so profusely, and displayed his guilt so dramatically that Robinson wound up being responsible for consoling him for his racist behaviour. “The Myth of the Angry Black Woman” is a bit meandering to start with, but ends up being just as loaded. Robinson admits that the piece was hard to write, but when she eventually gets down to the point, her story about being the only black student in the senior thesis workshop of her creative writing program is gut-wrenching. The workshop normally enforced a very strict rule that the person whose work was being critiqued had to listen silently to the criticism without defending themselves. But when another student debuted a very racist master/slave romance and Robinson had to give her critique, the white student who had written the piece cried and tried to defend her work, while the rest of the class and the teacher looked on.

The piece that made me laugh the hardest was “Casting Calls for People of Color That Were Not Written by People of Color,” which highlights the absurdities faced by non-white actors. The casting calls are parodied examples that highlight the different types of clichés that are common in roles for people of color created by white writers and directors. I think part of the reason this piece works so well is that it is clearly meant to be delivered in print form, whereas some of the other essays, while funny, seemed like they were intended for verbal delivery but adapted to written form. Overall I am torn about whether to recommend print or audio for this title, as it really is a bit of a hybrid. If you are in it for the comedy, I would say that audio is definitely the route to go.

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Just Mercy

Cover image for Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson by Bryan Stevenson

ISBN 978-0-8129-8496-5

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

As a young law student, Bryan Stevenson was somewhat adrift at Harvard Law School, unsure of his direction or his future. He wanted to do something that would help people, but he was having trouble connecting his theoretical education with meaningful action. Then, an internship at the Southern Prisoner’s Defence Committee led to work helping inmates on death row in the Deep South. Most of these prisoners were indigent, and could not afford legal counsel to help review or appeal their cases. The experience made a profound impression, and led him to found the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in 1994. Stevenson would go on to appeal countless death sentences, and challenge the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole. Just Mercy recounts his experiences representing people who have been written off by society.

The main case threaded through Just Mercy is that of Walter McMillian, who was convicted in 1988 of the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, and sentenced to death in Alabama. Stevenson’s association with the case began with a call from the original trial judge, who got wind that Stevenson had been looking into McMillian, and called to try to scare him off of representing him. Stevenson took the case anyway, and the result is an investigation that seems like something out of a television crime drama. The tenuousness of the evidence on which McMillian was convicted is scarcely believable, the racism poorly concealed, and the unwillingness to admit an error simply stunning.

Just Mercy draws interesting parallels to one of American’s most beloved classic novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was from Monroeville, Alabama, home to author Harper Lee. The town continued to publicize and celebrate the work, even as a wrongful conviction took place in their midst. While To Kill a Mockingbird lionizes Atticus Finch for his defence of Tom Robinson, Stevenson encountered repeated obstruction from the community, and even received death and bomb threats for his defence of McMillian. The irony is not lost on Stevenson, who also notes the unhappy ending for the accused in Lee’s novel.

Walter McMillian in the main thread running through the book, appearing in every second chapter, but his is not the only story. In the chapters between, Stevenson highlights other types of abuses that lead him to do this work, such as life without parole sentences for children, the incarceration of the mentally ill, and the prosecution of women who have suffered still births. While this results in a book that is less focused on a particular case, it ultimately proves to be a strength. These chapters serve to show that Walter McMillian is not isolated or even a particularly extreme case, and give a better idea of the breadth of the problem. The alternating chapters even serve to provide some sense of suspense in McMillian’s case, despite the fact that the outcome was widely publicized and is therefore probably generally known to readers.

Beyond specific cases, Just Mercy also serves to highlight the how short legal services are for the poor, and the lack of re-entry programs for exonerated prisoners. Every time Stevenson took on a new case, other prisoners would hear about his work and seek his help, creating an impossible case load. Once, in a case where Stevenson was representing a veteran who suffered from PTSD, and injured two children by setting off a bomb, the victims’ families asked for Stevenson’s assistance seeking financial aid they had been promised but never received.  They sought his help even though he was representing the man who had caused the injuries in the first place.

Even when prisoners get help and are able to win their release, they face problems reintegrating into society. Someone who is convicted of murder and then later found to be innocent remains ineligible for services that exclude people who have been convicted of felonies. Originally setting out to provide legal help, Stevenson subsequently found himself also doing social work, providing assistance and support to those he had helped set free. Thus Stevenson paints a broad portrait of a problem that goes beyond any one wrongfully convicted prisoner, and serves to highlight a broken system in desperate need of reform.

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The Fire Next Time

Cover image for The Fire Next Time by James Baldwinby James Baldwin

ISBN 978-0-679-74472-6

“You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”

Originally published in 1963, The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays, the relatively short “My Dungeon Shook,” and the longer “Down at the Cross,” which makes up most of the volume. By the time it was published, Baldwin was an expatriate, living abroad in France, both a product of America, and apart from it.  “My Dungeon Shook” takes the form of a letter to Baldwin’s nephew and namesake, in which he addresses what it means to be a black man in the United States. “Down at the Cross” recounts Baldwin’s ardent conversion to Christianity as a teenager, and his subsequent exit from the church, using his own journey to examine the role of faith in the black community.

“My Dungeon Shook” is a heart-rending piece that is all the more powerful for its brevity. Baldwin addresses his young nephew with such unadorned directness. It is an honesty that seems desperate to impart anything he can that will help the younger James understand and navigate his experience. What is most startling is perhaps how relevant it still feels today. Some of the specifics have changed—there are no more colored bathrooms or water fountains, no dividing line on the bus—but black families are still having these conversations with their children every day.

Baldwin has an eloquent and unique style that makes me imagine him as a powerful orator. I can certainly picture him as a young lay-preacher, given ecstatic sermons in “Down at the Cross.” He has a startling clarity about what pushed him into the church, and what held him there, even as he describes it as like “being in the theatre. I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.” He later turns his attention on the Nation of Islam, arguing that the movement’s appeal among black people stemmed from a similar fear and lack of control. This second piece is looser than “My Dungeon Shook”, and sprawls much more broadly towards the end.

The Fire Next Time is a classic work that I picked up less to review, and more to add context to my recent reading, including Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward. I can certainly see more clearly the roots of Coates’ work, and how Baldwin’s style informed his own. They share a skepticism about religion, but interestingly I think that Coates is perhaps the more pessimistic of the two. Works that are deemed classics always seem to gather a certain aura of gravitas and inaccessibility, but Baldwin pulled me right in, and I can see why his writing possesses an enduring appeal.

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Hidden Figures

Cover image for Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterlyby Margot Lee Shetterly

ISBN 978-0-06-236359-6

“Unless an engineer was given a compelling reason to evaluate a woman as a peer, she remained in his blind spot, her usefulness measured against the limited task at hand, any additional talents undiscovered.”

The quick marketing description of Hidden Figures touts this book as the story of the black women mathematicians of NASA, who helped put men on the moon. But Margot Lee Shetterly’s narrative begins long before that. During World War II, women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, pulled into the vacuum left by men departing to serve in the military. Many of the black women who would go on to play significant roles in the space race began their careers in the segregated West Computing department of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) on the Virginia Peninsula. In those days, computers were people, not machines, and the insatiable demand for bright mathematical minds cracked the door for black women to enter the agency that would one day become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Author Margot Lee Shetterly grew up on the Virginia Peninsula, her father one of the many African Americans who worked for NASA’s Langley Research Center. This was so common in the area that during her childhood, Shetterly took it for granted that “the face of science was brown like mine.” But on a return trip home to visit her parents during adulthood, she began to realize how remarkable her community really was. She peppered her father with questions about his early days at Langley, and began interviewing women from their church who had worked as computers in the early days. By the time she finished Hidden Figures, Shetterly could “put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980.”

Shetterly focuses on three main figures, including Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson. For most people, the last name is the only one that might be familiar, particularly after she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Shetterly touches briefly on many other women who worked for NACA and NASA, and in the later part of the book, brings in Dr. Christine Darden, representing the next generation of black women who were able to take advantage of the advances made by their predecessors. She follows Dorothy Vaughn from being a member of the West Computing pool, to head of that department, to overseeing its dissolution when the creation of NASA finally desegregated the computers. After beginning her career as a teacher, Katherine Johnson joined the computers in 1953, before going on to calculate launch windows and trajectories for several of America’s first space flights.

Meanwhile, Mary Jackson’s story in Hidden Figures always seemed to be building but never quite as centered as it could be. This made a great deal more sense when I arrived at the epilogue, and learned that Shetterly had to cut the section she had intended to include about Jackson’s later career. After notably achieving the title of engineer, in 1981 Jackson took a pay cut to move across to human resources, where she focused on ensuring equal employment opportunities for women and minorities at the agency. Shetterly recounts some of this in the epilogue, but I very much wished to read the complete chapter on the subject that was cut from the manuscript.

Throughout the narrative, Shetterly balances the math and science with the personal stories of the women. But she is also adept at counterpointing the developments at Langley and the career trajectories of the women with events in the United States at large, particularly as it pertains to the Civil Rights movement. In the space race against the USSR, the continued segregation and inequality of African Americans was on international display, undermining America’s stated ideals. While activists were being dragged off buses and beaten at lunch counters, the black computers were quietly fighting against segregated cafeterias, colored bathrooms, and the difficulty of achieving titles and paygrades commensurate with their education, acknowledgements that were automatically granted to their white or male peers. Shetterly deftly places all of this in context with the larger movements of history.

Shetterly has a writing style that leans more towards the academic than to narrative non-fiction. The documentation includes hundreds of notes, and ten pages of bibliography. Hidden Figures is as much science as anthropology. For that reason, I also look forward to the release of the film that will help bring these amazing women to life for those who might not be as interested in reading the in-depth details of math and engineering, but who still need to hear this story.

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