From politics to activism to academics, African-American women have played an influential role in American history. But did you know that we were a driving force behind sending the first man into space?
If you answered “no,” you are not alone. But thanks to first-time author Margot Lee Shetterly, her HarperCollins book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race and the upcoming film with the same title, these women will never be overlooked again. The book centers on Black female mathematicians Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and countless others whose genius and tenacity were the brains behind some of NASA’s biggest accomplishment’s, including astronaut John Glenn’s historic interstellar orbit in 1962.
Shetterly recently sat down with HelloBeautiful to talk about bringing this story to light, her excitement with the star-studded film and what she hopes Black women and girls and will take away from this empowering real-life story.
HB: Hidden Figures is so empowering and fills in the gaps that history books created. How did this book come about?
MLS: I was raised in Hampton, Virginia [where the story takes place]. My father was a researcher at NASA, so I’ve always known about these women and their work, but I also saw them in the community. Maybe one weekend, they would be at an HBCU picnic or a sorority meeting with my mother and another weekend they would be at a science conference.
But that “ah ha” moment didn’t happen until years later when my husband and I were visiting my parents. My father was telling my husband about the huge number of women—including a core group of Black women—who served as mathematicians at NASA. For me, seeing African-Americans who worked in science, math and engineering was the norm, but my husband just kept saying, “Why haven’t we heard this story before? This should be a book!”
And then it really hit why I needed to tell their stories because the rest of the world didn’t know how significant these women were.
HB: What did the research process for Hidden Figures entail?
MLS: So I spent around three years doing the research, which included interviewing the incredible Kathy Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), whose in her 90s now. And after speaking with her, I realized that the story was bigger than her— there was an army of them doing amazing things. So I started reaching out to the families of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and others who are now deceased. They would give me another name of another woman and I would interview their family members and it kept going. And over time, I learned that as early as 1943, Black women working at NASA weren’t an exception—it was a rule.
I also uncovered studies from the 1950s that Black women had co-authored with some of the world’s top aeronautical researchers. I was blown away, because sadly when we think of this type of work, we don’t think of Black women. And here was the proof that we were on the forefront of such innovative work.
But most important, this research was about connecting the work these women did at NASA to their personal lives in order to get the whole story and show their multiple identities.
HB: Why was it so important for you to tell this story?
MLS: First, people need to know who these women are and what they gave to their country. And I can’t stress enough that American history is our history and our history is American history. But I also wrote this story for myself because I wanted to see women who looked like me be the heroes of the story. It’s incredibly important for us to tell stories that are centered on Black female protagonists seizing the American Dream.
And we can’t sit and wait for others to tell our stories—we have to tell them and tell them in our own way.
HB: Hidden Figures was optioned into a film way before it was even published. How did that happen?
MLS: It’s actually unheard of! My book came out this September, but it was optioned last year and went into production earlier this year. Really, my literary agent sent out the book proposal to scouts who were interested in turning books into films. One day, Donna Gigliotti, one of the producers of Oscar-winning Shakespeare In Love, said she loved the story and identified with these women. And despite me not having the book finished, she was determined to make this film.
And I just look at the movie and the women involved—Taraji, Octavia and Janelle—and it’s really a dream come true. Not only are these actresses talented, but also they have such great chemistry in front and behind the scenes. They truly respect each other, which has only elevated this story of Black Girl Magic and Black brilliance.
HB: Why do you believe that this story has been overlooked for so long?
MLS: It’s complicated. Definitely racism and sexism played a big role in why the story hasn’t been told before. The women worked in these secret rooms on their computers far away from the visible work the male engineers were doing. And so the women’s contributions weren’t seen as important as the men’s and so their work got lost in history.
However, this work was also classified and people didn’t talk about it, but now we are talking about it and it’s having such a powerful impact.
HB: Speaking of its impact, what has the response to the book and film been so far?
MLS: The enthusiasm has been off the charts! During book signings, people bring a bag of books for me to sign. It’s been crazy and it’s coming from people of all backgrounds. I’ve also seen fathers attend book signings and screenings saying, “My daughter is really talented in math and sciences and having a hard time but ‘Hidden Figures’ is helping her get through.”
HB: That must be great to hear.
MLS: It really is. Because we need more women of color in STEM and it’s wonderful to be a part of what’s inspiring that shift.
HB: Recently, the film screened at a White House event hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. That must have been surreal.
MLS: It was incredible. And then President Obama surprised everyone and showed up! They are both such huge fans of science and diversity and inclusion in science and told me how great Hidden Figures is and what this means to our future. Looking at the upcoming administration, it’s crucial that we stand up and continue to build upon the progress that the Obama’s have created during the past eight years.
Learn more about Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race here.
“Hidden Figures” hits theaters nationwide on January 6.
***This interview was edited for clarity and length.