If you are a black girl nerd and you are reading this, then I am sure you have heard of the groundbreaking book and soon to be released motion picture, Hidden Figures. Hidden Figures, adapted from the biographical text, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. The three most important characters are “computers” who worked at the National Air and Space Administration (NASA) during America’s race to space against the Soviet Union in the 1960’s.
I first met the author of Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly — a native of Hampton Virginia — at a screening of the movie hosted by The Ms. Foundation for Women, Lenny Letter and, Essence Magazine. To my surprise, this was also Shetterly’s first time seeing the final version of the film.
Needless to say, this year has been a whirlwind for Shetterly. I had the privilege of catching up with the first-time author and black girl nerd in the middle of her exciting tour promoting the film.
“It was crazy,” Shetterly said about the last year. I was trying to finish [the book] — and learn how to do that — while they were adapting it for a movie that was moving full steam ahead.”
“It was crazy but, when I saw the final product for the first time, I was floored. I said to my husband, this is happening. This is happening. This has happened.”
You wouldn’t know from reading Hidden Figures or watching the movie, that this was Shetterly’s first book. “It took a lot to let go and make some leaps; particularly with the non-fiction,” she said. “It took a lot to say, ‘You know what? I do know enough to write this,’ and it was time to write it.”
As for the adaptation and production of the movie, there was a little bit more of a learning curve. “I simply didn’t know what adaptation entails. A lot of it was simply my ignorance but, there were also things where I knew that it just wasn’t right, it just wasn’t true and [when I gave feedback] they listened to me,” said Shetterly of the team at 20th Century Fox.
But even still, there was a process to shedding light on this story of three Black women pioneers working in STEM and being instrumental in the Space Race. There are real people and experiences behind the story. According to Shetterly, bringing Hidden Figures to life through the pages of her book and on the big screen had its challenges. Her greatest challenge was staying true to the narrative and honoring the lives of the women and men involved.
“There are all these stereotypes attached to these women and a feeling of being more protective than you need to be when the right thing to do is to show people in their full humanity. This is long history. I wanted those women to have that. They deserved it.”
When asked, “Why this story?” Margot Lee Shetterly revealed just how close she was to the characters and it all made sense.
“I asked [myself], why there weren’t more books written like this. Books that just happen to have black female protagonists?”
“There is no reason why not, except the person with the point of view had not written the book and that’s me. This was my story; this is my origin story. This is where I came from. I am the moon landing,” said Shetterly whose father was a research scientist at NASA.
“….He stood on the shoulders of these women. They pushed him along and told him how to do it; that is why I wrote this book.”
Before our interview was over, I had to ask Shetterly a few more questions that I know Black Girl Nerds around the world would love to know the answer to:
What was it like for you growing up as a black girl nerd with math and science all around?
“It is so weird the nerd thing. Like right now I feel cool. I am lucky, but you know when you are the little girl with glasses for me one of the most powerful scenes in the whole movie is watching young Katherine Johnson with her glasses factoring quadratic equations on the board because that was me. I was the little nerdy girl factoring quadratic equations on the board with huge glasses and not cool.”
You grew up with this being normal, but you now travele around, and you’ve seen and from other women, who have never seen images like this. What would be your message to them?
“Sometimes you can’t be afraid to be the only one. If you want to be in astrophysics and nobody is in that field that looks like you or has your background and you know that is who you are; you can’t be afraid to be the only one. If you have that idea that it is ok, that maybe that is the situation and it is going to be the situation then that also has a lot of strengthening power.”
Favorite Writer: George Orwell
Favorite Sci-Fi Character: Lt. Commander Nyota Uhura
For more about my interview with Margot Lee Shetterly check out my other articles: Words of Wisdom from Hidden Figures Author Margot Lee Shetterly and Five Facts You Didn’t know about Hidden Figures.
[Editors Note: An earlier version of this article referred to Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race as a novel. The article has been edited to reflect the real, biographical nature of the text and the film adaptation, Hidden Figures. Thank you.]