Black Knowledge

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly: A Book Review

Hidden Figures Margot Lee Shetterly

(Photo Credit: Vanguard STEM)

Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (2016) offers an account of the little known history of black women mathematicians who were responsible for John Glenn’s first orbit around Earth and who were responsible for sending Neil Armstrong to the moon. Although these women had teaching positions in segregated schools in the South, they knew their minds and talents were needed to advance the modern American space program; they answered the nation’s call for their help. These brilliant black women contributed significantly to shaping our modern space program.

Reared in Hampton, Virginia, where she met many of these black women pioneers she discusses in Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly, a recipient of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities research grant and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, divulges how black women were able to make historic contributions to the space program, even though Science and Mathematics have always been largely dominated by white men.

Shetterly explains that the genesis of black women’s contributions as mathematicians at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton,Virginia is in the 1940s. In the 1940s, Langley hired its first black employees as “computers,” considering their duties were to perform mathematical computations. Before the 1940s, racist policies prevented black people from accessing these jobs at Langley. Refusing to accept black exclusion from any workplace, A. Philip Randolph and other freedom fighters tirelessly and effectively championed the cause of anti-discrimination, especially as it pertains to race, in employment.  

Philip Randolph threatened to send 100,000 protesters to march on our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C. to generate national awareness about the economic violence of racial discrimination in employment. The efforts of Randolph and other civil rights leaders were successful: In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which forbid racial discrimination in the national defense industry, and Executive Order 9346, which led to the assembling of the Fair Employment Practices Committee to fight racial discrimination in employment. FDR called for racial equality in federal employment. These efforts led to black women being able to work at Langley, albeit in a segregated work environment.

Although most of these black women have not received the honor due to them, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2015.

World War II afforded these black women a special opportunity: a great number of new airplanes were needed and a corresponding increase in the need for more mathematicians to aid in designing these airplanes; these black women capitalized on the opportunity. Langley was so desperate for more mathematicians that no other choice was left but to hire them.    

Shetterly reveals that the number of women who worked at Langley between 1943 – 1980 is unknown; it could have been hundreds or thousands. She estimates around 70 black women worked at Langley during the aforementioned period, though.  

Despite the constant ugly racism and discrimination they faced on the inside of Langley, black women like Katherine Johnson excelled. Their white colleagues could not have accomplished what was necessary without them.

Dr. Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Why They Killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Brief Note

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death

(Photo Credit: Heavy)

When one carefully studies the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it becomes evident that racists desirous of his death targeted his voice, literally. Various attacks on his body were intentionally centered on his mouth. Even on the dreadful day of his execrable assassination, April 4, 1968, it was a bullet that shattered his jaw. It wasn’t only King’s life that bothered racists, the racial caste system, Jim Crow, and white supremacy, but it was also his voice, that powerful, that revolutionary, that eloquent, that authentically black voice they wanted to silence and bury forever.

Immutable, inextinguishable, fueled by an enduring, unconditional love, King’s voice incessantly and resoundingly speaks from the grave.

Find your voice. Allow no one to silence and bury it.

Dr. Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet”: A Summary

Malcolm X Ballot or Bullet

(Photo Credit: Atlanta BlackStar)

In “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X (1964) advocates for racial, economic, and social justice, and he does not want religion to stand in the way of justice. He noted that many preachers, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are most known for their work for justice—not their religious vocations. The civil and human rights activist contends that Islam is his personal business. Mr. X finds that religious differences can hinder solidarity. The speech calls for keeping religion private: it should be between the person and his or her God.

Brother X posits that when we keep religion private, we’re able to join together in a common fight against a common enemy. Religion will keep us fighting one another, instead of our common enemy. A desire for the Black community to discontinue supporting White politicians is expressed, and the speaker wants that support to be redirected to Black political leaders. Malcolm does not want the Black community to endorse Black political leaders who have been bought and paid for by White political leaders.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” has a strong concern with offering a practical understanding the political philosophy of black nationalism. The political philosophy of black nationalism is about developing a healthy Black community that relies on its Black membership for economic sufficiency and that refuses to be manipulated by Whites. The speaker asserts that until Black people become politically mature, they will continue to be misled into voting for politicians who do not have the Black community’s best interests at heart.

Malcolm supplies an understanding of the economic philosophy of black nationalism, which calls for Black people to control their own economic wealth. He believes Blacks need to spend their money only in the communities in which they live. When they spend their money in communities outside of the ones in which they reside, those communities become richer and the Black communities become poorer. A re-education of Black people must take place to enable them to comprehend how to build and maintain wealth within their own community. He entreats Blacks to stop giving Whites their money and invest their money within the Black community. Because Blacks have not been creating their own stores, they have made it possible for White men to establish stores in Black neighborhoods, thus making those White men richer each day.

The speaker emphasizes that Blacks are “trapped” in an economic system and mindset that does not profit them.  He, therefore, offers them the economic and political philosophy of black nationalism to help dismantle the economic imprisonment they have allowed Whites to cause them to embrace unconsciously. The speech does not simply call for Black people to develop little stores, but to expand these stores into much larger operations, larger operations inevitably having a national reach. Black people must develop businesses and support Black businesses.  When Black people start businesses, they are able to employ Black people. Brother X does not want Black people to have to rely on their oppressors for jobs.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” questions the power of religion to aid Blacks in fighting their oppressors. Blacks need to focus on actions to combat oppression and leave religion “in the closet.” He proclaims it’s time to “stop singing and start swinging.” For Mr. X, you cannot “sing” your way to freedom but you can “swing” your way to freedom.

The speech contends that White liberals and government have failed Black people. Blacks should turn to themselves and not others. They must realize liberation will come from their own efforts. He champions a self-help philosophy for Black progression. Black nationalism is a self-help philosophy.

Malcolm is in opposition to “sit-ins,” “boycotting,” and marching around singing “We Shall Overcome”—his clever critiques of Kingian philosophy. He declares that White politicians don’t come into Black neighborhoods until election time. The speaker argues that Blacks have not benefitted from America’s democracy—they have been victimized by American hypocrisy. Malcolm discloses that Blacks have not experienced the American Dream—they’ve experienced an American nightmare.

Blacks people need to vote as a unified group. When Blacks vote as a unified group, they determine who gets elected, considering Whites are split between the Democratic and Republican candidates for President. Malcolm X contends that Black people put Democrats first and Democrats put them last. Blacks have allowed this to happen because they’re “chumps,” “a political chump.” He posits that continuing to back a political party that has the means to significantly benefit you, but refuses to make you a priority means you’re “a traitor to your race.”

He asserts that there has never been a non-violent revolution—not even in Hollywood. Again, this is a direct attack on the non-violent philosophy of Dr. King. Mr. X implores Black people to take the fight beyond civil rights and expand it to human rights. Brother Malcolm expressed an intention to take the civil rights struggle to the United Nations to let the world know America is guilty of genocide and human rights violations.

The speech champions Black nationalism as the key to Black economic and social progression.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” encourages Blacks to join churches and other organizations that promote Black uplift, and it warns them about Black churches and other organizations that advance white nationalism. Churches and organizations employing white nationalism can be recognized by their espousal of things counterproductive to Black uplift and solidarity.

Dr. Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison