Black Excellence

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

Advertisements

Revolutionary Paideia Celebrates Black History Month 2018

Black History Month 2018

(Photo Credit: Central Michigan University)

America was built by the free and forced labor of enslaved blacks. The contributions black people have made to America are incomparable. Black history, therefore, should be celebrated every month, including the shortest month of the year designated for it, February. To showcase and appreciate black people and their contributions to America, Revolutionary Paideia will use each day of this month to highlight them and their exceptional work.

Visit the site each day this month, and enjoy the diversity of black excellence (#BlackExcellence).

Dr. Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison  

American Exceptionalism Made Possible by Exceptional Africans

President Donald Trump

(Photo Credit: USA Today)

When President Donald J. Trump favors lily-white Norwegian immigrants over those abject, wretched, in his view, black African and Haitian immigrants, he exposes his historical amnesia and attempts at black historical erasure. When white invaders arrived in America to rob Native Americans of their land, and, unfortunately, were successful in this theft, they soon captured and forced many Africans to come to America as slaves.

Most foundational phenomena crucial to the evolution of American exceptionalism were developed by these Africans, including the White House, however. Essentially, most celebrated historical buildings were built by Africans. Africans built America, and the nation flourished through a slave economy, an economy based on the free or cheap labor of exceptional African slaves. White folks didn’t build America; exceptional Africans did.

Africans Gave Real Meaning to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution

Even the cherished Declaration of Independence and Constitution, penned and conceived by white men, failed to achieve their true power, beauty, and significance while Africans were enslaved—and even while official Jim Crow existed. It was African humanity, African resistance, African rebellion that gave authentic meaning to the eloquent words expressed in those aforementioned founding national documents.

Through African “fightback,” to quote one of the greatest minds in world history and leading public intellectual Dr. Cornel West, whites were compelled to begin putting those words into action, action for all people—regardless of race, regardless of skin color, regardless of national origin—although all the content of those documents have not fully materialized for all. Without Africans, though, the descendants of these white men who authored these documents likely would have never completely understood the beloved documents’ real power, import, and possibilities.

Africanizing American Exceptionalism

Yes, America is exceptional. What really makes America exceptional, though? Despite every effort to efface blackness, to deny the value of blackness, to discredit the beauty and brilliance of blackness, blackness still reigned and reigns supreme. Blackness will not and cannot be defeated. Blackness speaks to what’s possible: anything. Anything for those willing to believe in and fight for possibilities, for the Blochian Not-Yet, for the principle of hope. This is what makes America exceptional. This is the real essence of American exceptionalism.  

Conservative Republicans love to promote American exceptionalism, but the centrality of Africans to the genesis of this exceptionalism is almost never mentioned. If American exceptionalism is to continue to have any power, any allure, any gravity, then the Africanness of it, the real (and not imagined) “Africanist presence” in it, to quote the incomparable Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison, must figure prominently in any discourse involving the concept.

President Trump’s racist comments about African nations and Haiti can cause conservative Republicans to lose any political efficacy in employing American exceptionalism in the future if they fail to resist him and fail to muster the moral and political courage to categorically denounce these abominable comments.

And, just a quick note on Haiti, it was the Haitian Revolution that demonstrated for blacks in America that liberation was possible. If you are a racist, a white supremacist, though, like President Trump, a pivotal historical moment in the black freedom struggle isn’t something you desire to know and remember.   

Conclusion

Instead of focusing on “Make America Great Again,” which her constant commitment to sin, to moral, social, economic, and political depravity has never permitted her to experience unadulterated greatness, let’s work on dismantling the vicious legacies of racism, white supremacy, discrimination, and injustice that persist to plague our nation.

“Make America Great Again” is coded language expressing nostalgia for the days when racism and white supremacy ruled, which, as one of the foremost cultural theorists Fredric Jameson contends, is, ironically, “nostalgia for the present.” We’ve never witnessed a day in America where “Make America Great Again” was not the ruling order, the ruling ideology.     

In short, American exceptionalism is the story of Africans ushering in the possibility of a nation and democracy as good as their promised.

Dr. Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison