Hidden Figure: Race and Space on Film

Computers used to wear skirts, heels and lipstick. Hidden Figures is a gorgeous drama about three African American women, the human computers at NASA in the 1950s.

Black women mathematicians working on the space programme seems so far-fetched. And yet NASA employed hundreds of them. The film excavates their story, bringing back into the light the geeks who made space flight possible.

As I am interested in how race and space intersect, I will focus on these here. The outdoor and indoor shots in the film capture the American racial-spatial dynamic. There is a classic film scene of people stranded on the side of the road as the car has broken down. The scene takes an unexpected turn, as the legs sticking out from under the car belong to a Black woman, wearing heels. Octavia Spencer is beautiful as Dorothy Vaughan the mechanical genius who get the car going. This skill comes in handy later, as she figures out how to programme the first mechanical computers, when the white male experts could not do so.

African Americans in the outdoors tend to be wary – on guard waiting for something to happen. In this case it is the white policeman, hand on gun, with all the subtlety of an elephant, demanding to know who the women were and what they were doing.  The wide open road ahead, is suddenly not so wide nor open.

The church picnic, a staple shot in African American films, gives another perspective on being Black in the outdoors. The church in the background of the scene, is large, stolid and comfortable. Much like its congregation. The picnic in the church’s garden is an excuse for food, gossip and the first smiles of a romance. In the domestic confines of the church’s garden, outdoors is a safe space for Black people.

Hidden Figures switches between the lives of the women at home and at work. At home they are surrounded by children and loving husbands. This point is worth noting, as it is still too exotic to see Black men as tender, loving figures.

Work life was so much harder. The USA lost the space race to the Russians as they could not figure out how to get the astronauts safely back to Earth. The mathematics for that had not yet being invented. When all the white men failed to work out that calculation, NASA put out the call to find ‘a genius among the geniuses.’ No one expected that it would be a Black woman. Taraji P. Henson steals the film as Katherine Johnston. She strikes the right balance between developing as an intellectual powerhouse and staying humble so that she would not be lynched on the job.

NASA was also short of talented engineers. The department opened up the gate to these top paying jobs, and promptly tried to shut it again when the best applicant was Mary Jackson, an African American women (Janelle Monae).

Watching the work battles of the women is so familiar. The signs for the segregated coloured toilets, water fountains and coffee pots have long gone. But the invisible ones are still cemented into place. Black people are the last hired, the first fired, and need to be twice as goods to get half as far.

Hidden Figures is set against the backdrop of the space race, Civil Rights and the dawn of the computer age. The women had the audacity, not just to hope, but to demand to be part of that new future.  Katherine Johnson went on to do the maths, enabling the US to win the race to put the first man on the Moon. A new $30 million computer research lab at NASA is named in her honour.

Hidden Figures has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It has made about $123 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films of 2016. This challenges the stereotype that dramatic films about Black people don’t sell. Hidden Figures is required viewing for all those trying to get more girls into science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields. The film shows that being a woman and being a geek is a recipe for success.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

 

 

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Teaching at the Swingers’ Convention

“I can make some extra money teaching at the swingers’ convention and that will pay for the side trips,” said my graduate classmate.

“Swingers’ convention? Who goes to those?” I said.

“Swingers.”

“What do they do there?”

“Swing.”

“But. Okay. So. I am liberal but maybe not as open-minded as I thought. Conventions are for business, not for… Really? Are you kidding me? What are you going to teach them?”

“Sexuality workshops. In other words how to stick fingers up butts for sexual pleasure. White Republicans love that kind of stuff, never mind what they say in public. There are the swingers’ cruises and weekend get-aways. If I can teach at a few of those I will be set for the summer. I did a 45-day road trip last year from Toronto to Florida and L.A. All of it was paid for by doing swingers’ seminars.”

“I want to go backpacking in Central America. I thought that was adventurous but the swingers’ convention is something else.”

“As a sex health and sexuality teacher you get to see all kinds of interesting stuff. The academic conferences are one thing, the fun and the money are in the swingers workshops.”

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Walking the American Border

I am thinking of taking up a new hobby. It’s called wall-walking. I want to hike along the main walls in the world, built to separate communities. Imagine being outdoors, face warmed by the sun, dreadlocks quivering in the breeze. Open skies. The wall pointing the way ahead. One could not possibly get lost, as the wall is always there.

I have hiked along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Built by the Romans some 2,000 years ago, to the north were the barbarians and to the south was civilization. The wall snaked over the tree-less, scrub-covered moors. Up close it was solid, massive stone blocks cemented into place. From a distance it was a mere ribbon of beige, fighting not to disappear into the earth.

Hadrian’s Wall worked for a while. Until the barbarians breached it. Freedom fighters will fight. No wall is high enough to contain their hunger to be rid of conquerors. Even the ones offering improvements such as wine, roads and hot baths.

My next wall-walking stop would be the Great Wall of China. The mother of all walls, meanders some 21,000 kilometres over the land. This wall failed too. The Mongols jumped over it with their horses. Genghis Khan built an empire, stretching from Asia to Europe, beyond the length of the wall. The wall became the trade route for ideas, news, silk and spices.

I can still see the Berlin Wall falling, in my mind’s eye. Bats and hammers smashing the symbol of a divided country. I can hear the cheers as Germans waltzed in the streets. The wall had failed. I want to see the remnants of it, kept as a souvenir.

Who builds the walls has the most to fear. The enclosures may have started as a symbol of their power, but ended as a relic of their impotence.

Closer to home, I will have to trek along the newest wall in the world. Trump’s Wall. It will be built along the USA-Mexican border. It will slither over some 3,000 kilometres of desserts, mountains and rivers. The wall is ‘to make America great again,’ by keeping the Mexicans out. Some 150 years ago, the border was further north. The USA states of Texas, Arizona and California were all part of Mexico.

All the long walls failed in history. Why should Trump’s Wall be any different?

Sailing on a Half Moon

Washington: In the Footsteps of History

As the Obamas walked up the steps of the Capitol Building, I promised to do the same one day. To me, their inauguration was ‘the dream and the hope of the slave.’ In the last month, of their last year, as President and First Lady of the USA, I finally made it to Washington.

Stepping out of the train station, the white dome of the Capitol Building glittered in the weak winter sunshine. The beacon was our landmark. As long as we could find it, we would never get lost in the compact city.

We scampered up the steps of the Capitol, then along the surrounding wide avenues and parks. I was trying to find the spot of a shot from Twelve Years a Slave. The Capitol’s dome glittered there too, in the background, as the slaves were stripped, whipped and shackled in a slave pen.

A cool wind played with my dreadlocks as we ambled along the Potomac River. Ignoring the map, we figured it was more fun just to drift and see where the water took us. The river was wide, and too deep to swim across. As it was winter, no tour boats bobbed in the water.

Across the bank, we spotted the Jefferson Memorial. The Greek-style temple was serene, it’s dome round and perky like a full breast. The lone figure of the man peeked through the columns. Perhaps he was missing Sally Hemmings. Would she have wanted to join him, I wondered? He was her lover, her owner, and the father of their enslaved children.

Did Jefferson think of his children as he wrote the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”? I think he did – but only of his White ones. His Black children were mere property, their names neatly recorded in his ledgers, along with his other 600 or so slaves, the cattle and the bushels of tobacco.

Groves of cherry trees lingered over the banks of the Potomac River. We strolled along, dodging a few runners and cyclists sharing the river-walk path. Pocahontas lived along this same shore. She sailed from here to visit the queen and king of England in 1615. Her gift of tobacco was sweet to them, and in the end, the herb was bitter for Native and African Americans.

“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” This was carved into the Martin Luther King Memorial. We stumbled across it, on the right bank of the river. King stands tall, as he emerges from a mountain of solid rock. Arms folded, he gazes across the water. Perhaps he was having a long chat with Jefferson. Separated by two centuries of history, the two men were still talking about race.

President Obama came to the same spot on the river once – to pay his respects to King. People milled around the memorial, waiting for their turn, to stand at King’s feet and pose for the classic photograph. We did the same. At King’s feet was a single red rose.

The Potomac was the River Jordan for slaves. On its south side were the slave states. Cross the river, and you were almost free. Black fishermen and clam diggers worked the river, fishing for news and food. At night their catch included fleeing slaves, gently shown the way north, and another stop on the Underground Railroad.

Twilight was near as turned away from the river, and followed the signs to the Lincoln Memorial. The temple was magnificent. I looked about the vast hall, above and around the statue and these words caught my eye, carved into the wall. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” Lincoln said this speech in 1865, at the end of the civil war.

We ambled down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, standing on the exact spot, where a century later Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech. A quarter of a million people stood before the Civil Rights king, as he once again pleaded for justice.

In the distance, the Egyptian-inspired Washington Monument pricked the sky. Capitol Hill seemed to quiver in the fading light. The National Museum of African American History and Culture appeared like the upper decks of a ship, its sails aloft in a full breeze. We sauntered towards it, the image of a slave ship drifting in my head. The museum, Black Lives Matter, and the Obamas, are the after-life of slavery.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Choices: Marriage or Academia?

Like mosquito bites the professor’s words stung. The more she talked the more the bites itched. I willed myself to continue listening, ignoring the angry rash spreading in my spirit.

The professor introduced herself in class by summarising her accomplishments and climb up the academic ladder. Her achievements were many. Then she added a few personal details. She was married, this I expected. She had two children, this I did not expect. It was the first mosquito bite.

I did my first degree in England, switching from chemistry to international relations. As expected, there were no female professors in the science faculty. There was only one in my social science department. Three years of school and only one woman to show the possibilities of an academic career. At that point I decided it was not for me.

I did not want to end up at aged thirty, single, childless and old, facing a group of adolescents dissecting me with their pitying looks. Scanning my fingers for a ring, ears pricked for any hint of a life outside of lectures, books and exams.

Male professors aged thirty were fanciable, even in their corduroy pants, sensible shoes and jackets with elbow patches. A whiff of Old Spice enhanced their appeal. Female professors were a different a different chemical combination, smelling more like hydrogen sulphide than Chanel No. 5.

A decade later I did my master’s degree in Canada. Half of the professors were women (White). Hiding behind the gender parity was another reality. Most of the female professors were either single, divorced or childless. The male professors were the ones who were married with children. Once again, I decided that academia was not for me. Female professors were lonely old maids – albeit superbly educated lonely old maids.

And now, some two decades later, in my PhD class orientation, was a woman living the life that I had walked away from. She was my age. She was an academic. She was married with children. It should have been me. The mosquito bites blistered in my spirit.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir or Travel and Love

Moonlight: Race and Space on Film

Moonlight plays with expectations is so many ways, as a coming-of-age drama of an African American boy. As expected the film is set in an urban landscape, in this case Miami in the 1980s. There are the requisite pastel colours, fancy cars and the drug trade. Crack fuels the life in the city. The urban ghetto space is familiar and therefore the story seems predictable.  It is not. Multiple waves of meaning and knowing ripples through the film.

In one moving scene the boy hero enters the sea. Held in the strong arms of his drug-don mentor, the child is suspended in the water, his limpid eyes flickering between fear and trust. His baptism could go either way. The scene churns expectations – it is simply a set up for swimming lessons. It is worth seeing the film for this scene alone.

It is so rare to see African Americans in an outdoors space, where they are enjoying nature and not fleeing from race-based violence. It is just as uncommon to see a Black working-class man as a loving father figure, gently encouraging a child to try something new.

Moonlight drowns another stereotype about Black men and the spaces they are expected to occupy. Black, gay and living in the ‘hood are a taboo combination in popular culture. The film tackles this head on.

The hero does not believe the message from his mentor that gay love is just another form of love. He believes the screams from his mother and the ghetto – gay men make perfect punching bags.

James Baldwin made all the characters White in Giovanni’s Room. Black gay men in love was such an explosive issue in the 1950s, that he could not even float the idea in his novel. Moonlight reflects how far we have come. It queers the ‘hood.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Joining the One Per Cent Club. Is It Worth It?

‘Be humble. Be open to new ways of learning. Be ready to unlearn some things.’ A professor repeated this mantra many times during the first few weeks of seminars. He reminded us that we were now the elites in the education system.

Behind his words I heard a challenge: would we behave like all other elites, and think that we got here just by sheer hard work, and are therefore entitled to all the benefits of being on top of the pyramid? Or would we remember how things are now stacked in our favour?

I have never belonged to an elite club. But I do belong to a point one per cent club – the illusive group of Black people who enjoy outdoor activities. Go ahead and roll your eyes, chuckle in disbelief. I am used to that reaction.

Thanks to starting the PhD, I have now joined an elite one per cent club. This is proportion of people who hold the advance degree in most countries. Some 25 per cent of Canadians are university graduates according to Statistics Canada 2013 National Graduate Survey. This is such a middle-class norm that it long ago ceased to have any meaning for me. Middle-class kids go to university, it is simple as that. Of course, it is a whole different game for working-class children, but that is another story. I had no idea that with a PhD I am now among the privileged of the privileged.

In Canada there are about 210,000 PhDs and about 4,000 joining the exclusive club each year.  According to Statistics Canada, we need to produce double the number of PhDs to keep up with the USA and the rest of the developed countries.

The modern PhD started in Germany in the 1850s. The programme was so successful that it spread first to the rest of Europe, Canada and the USA, and then around the world. Is the PhD worth it?

Before applying for the PhD I interviewed six professors – I wanted to make sure that my idea was not full of lead. Most of them told me that my chance of getting an academic job at the end of it were about as good as turning ice into diamonds. Both are sparkly and shiny, but only one is a girl’s best friend.

It takes about ten years of study to get a PhD. From the Statistics Canada report a lot of PhD graduates will ride off into the sunset – of temporary, low-paying, part-time jobs, as academics for hire.  Few of us will make it to be professors with benefits, high salaries, and each year a fresh crop of underlings to sing our praises (at least in front our faces).

The figures are sobering. A person with a bachelor’s degree earn a median income of $53,000. For a master’s it is $70,000. And for a doctorate, wait for it, it is a whopping $75,000. Four extra years in school for a fistful of extra dollars. A PhD is pretty much a waste of time financially, especially for those not working in academia.

So why am I doing it? Well, I don’t have the skills of a nurse, teacher or construction worker. They all earn more than a PhD after considerably less years in school.

I am not doing the PhD for bragging rights either. Okay, a little bit for that. I am doing it because I like to learn. It is a chance for me to research something that interests me. And I hope at the end of it that I will shift from the one per cent to the thirty per cent club – that is the number of PhD graduates who actually become academics.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love