Hidden Figures: A Misnomer?

I want to briefly complicate the notion of a hidden figure because I am not entirely comfortable with labeling Elma Lewis, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and the many women of color in our history as hidden. While a catchy title for a book or Hollywood film, the idea of being hidden is centered on a politic of erasure. Black women and women of color are often not the first mentioned when the heroes of Black History Month (think: Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr). and Women’s History Month (think: Eleanor Roosevelt and Gloria Steinem) are heralded. The premise of a hidden figure is someone who is not seen at all or even kept secret. As a critical pedagogue, I must ask the question: seen by who? Whose gaze is upon these women that classify them as hidden? Because contrary to the book and film’s title, these women were seen. In a recent interview with Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book, Hidden Figures comments,

“I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, in the neighborhoods where these women lived, raised families, went to church and worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center like my father did. It was all very normal to us…I went to school with Katherine’s daughter; my mother was in the same AKA sorority with one of them.”

These women were employees, mothers, friends, mentors, sorority members, and role models. It is clear, however, because these mathematicians did not fit what Black Feminist writer and activist, Audre Lorde calls the ‘mythical norm’, their contributions were obscured by NASA’s historic records. As a result, these women and their work were rendered invisible. What if we de-centered the way whiteness and maleness influences our society’s understanding of a leader or hero? We would have a new ‘center’ entirely where these women are no longer hidden or in the margins. Instead, they would be sitting at the center. What if we re-examined history from this new ‘center’? How different would it look? And what if we, as Black women, were in control of our narrative as opposed to being at the mercy of others? I am asking to shift our epistemic system from one that centers heteronormative, imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy to one that centers the lives, histories and personal narratives of trans, queer, women, children, indigenous and people of color. Imagine the kind of world that would be? Oh to see the day! Ordinary people are not hidden. They are very much seen and are seen every day. Society must shift its center and widen its gaze so that we are not erasing the stories that make up the tapestry of this country’s rich history.

Judy Pryor-Ramirez is the Elma Lewis Scholar-in-Residence at the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, & Research. She is the co-author of Voices of Mixed Heritage, a digital curriculum for teachers about race, cultural hybridity and mixed race heritage. Follow her on tweets about #BlackGirlMagic and other musings at @JPryorRamirez.

(Image: Portrait of Katherine Johnson courtesy of NASA)


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