Bricks Without Straw: Hidden Figures, Young Clergy Women, and Intersectionality

Post Author: Courtney Pace

chalkboard with mathematical equations on itI have been excited to see Hidden Figures for months. The trailer gave me deeply satisfied laughter, hope, and inspiration. The poster gave me goosebumps. I knew I was going to love this movie from the moment I learned that it existed. It exceeded my expectations.

Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), one of the finest mathematicians (called “computers”) in the history of NASA. Her parents advocated for her to have appropriate education for her mathematical brilliance. Through hard work and a supportive family, Katherine belonged to a team of black female computers, referred to as the West Computing Group, resourcing the space program.

By Johnson’s side were Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who functioned as the supervisor for the West Computing Group, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a budding NASA engineer. America’s race to space depended largely on the mathematical and scientific work of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson. Not only were these women solving some of the most complex mathematical and scientific problems of their time, but they were doing it while juggling racism, sexism, and classism (all while in high heels).

There are many points of genius in the movie, and its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture is well-deserved. One of the most significant is its subtle pedagogy. The movie appeals to a wide demographic of viewers: fans of its actors, space enthusiasts, nostalgists, movie lovers, music lovers, women, audiences of color, teachers, etc. Whatever brings you to the theater will not begin to scratch the surface of what you’ll gain from this movie.

Hidden Figures demonstrates the complexity of racism and racial reconciliation. The movie opens with potential police brutality and the delicate balance between good citizenship and accepting oppression. Though religion is not a major theme of the movie, the characters attend the same church, which is the center of their community. Mr. Johnson’s military career success points to the anticipated double victory of freedom abroad and at home for black soldiers during the world wars, and the importance of affirming black male leadership in integrated public arenas. Segregation looms large in signage, work accommodations, and access to public places like libraries and court houses.

As a former engineer, I appreciated the way the movie depicted women’s second class citizenship. Leaders referred to mixed groups of staff as “gentlemen” or “you guys,” and told them to call their wives. Though they are among the leading minds in the country, the women of NASA are often assumed to be clerical staff or housekeepers, treated as expendable workers. In spite of putting in long hours doing demanding intellectual work, dress codes stipulated that they should wear dresses and heels. While some of the women had supportive helpers at home (largely other women), others began a second shift of domestic responsibilities even while defending their right to work. Many women in the movie, white and black, performed duties beyond the scope of their job responsibilities, without additional recognition or compensation, and without avenues for requesting advancement.

The movie honestly depicts the third and fourth class citizenship of black women. Though they have the same credentials as other employees, regardless of race or gender, the West Computing Group was relegated to a satellite (read: segregated) campus with substandard facilities and inferior compensation. When they spoke up for themselves, they were told to be thankful they had a job at all. White women sided with whiteness against shared womanhood with black women. The movie is pregnant with the intense pressure that these women felt to be better than excellent, always feeling the need to prove their worth as women and as people of color. They were fighting two battles at once every minute of every day, on top of whatever task they were acing.

Throughout the movie, there are opportunities to better understand how systemic prejudice, not just individual acts of bigotry, operate. There are scenes of dialogue that expose stereotyping, entire story lines necessary to convey the extent of prejudice against people of color, and witty one-liners that empower resistance.

Throughout the movie, black women resist oppression in search of true equality and freedom. They know what they bring to the table. They know what they can do. They know what they deserve. And not only are they excellent on the job day in and day out, but they are even preparing for the future from their own vision and insight (shout-out to Dorothy Vaughan), proving that they are brighter than the leading minds at NASA. They build “bricks without straw” (as the Exodus story says), and they keep on building, higher, better, and faster.

My engineering days behind me, I am now a professional historian of race and gender as well as an ordained minister. In my line of work, I often have conversations with well-meaning people who believe that because they do not commit personal acts of bigotry, prejudices no longer operate in our society. The fact that one can opt out of awareness of prejudice demonstrates privilege. If you are in the groups against which prejudice is directed, you cannot opt out. You have to navigate the system and somehow find ways to still be true to yourself. Sometimes that means that you take the risk of speaking truth to power.

I am white, and I grew up in a middle-class family in which both parents earned graduate-level degrees. I have privilege. I am also a woman who has experienced marginalization in both the engineering and religious fields. I am also a divorced mother. I experience prejudice against me fairly regularly. As a white person, I could isolate myself in white circles and turn a blind eye to what the rest of the world faces. As a woman, I have realized that I will never be equal until all other forms of prejudice are eradicated: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, ageism, etc. As the saying goes, Unless we are all free, none of us is free.

Hidden Figures beautifully paints the complex landscape of prejudice in America, a land which prides itself on freedom but does not deliver. These women had to be excellent to be taken seriously, in a way men do not. As young professionals, they had to make a way out of no way for advancement and professional respect. As parents and spouses, they relied on supportive families to share in household responsibilities, which continues to be a difficult balance for working mothers. As people of color, they had to fight for their right to education and necessary resources to do their jobs, including things most white people would take for granted, like access to restrooms, libraries, and basic police protection.

Prejudice is not just committed person-to-person. It is also, and mostly, committed by systems. It is deeply enmeshed in our cultures, our language, and our traditions. It is so present that we do not realize how much we engage in prejudicial acts and assumptions.

Stereotypes thrive unless personal experience exposes the inaccuracy of our prejudices. Reconciliation cannot happen until we see and treat every single person as made just as much in the image of God as we are. It means change, especially for the comfortable, but it is necessary and righteous.

As young clergywomen, we are sometimes the first young woman, or woman of any age, our congregations have seen in pastoral leadership. We are balancing on a tightrope of playing to expectations, excelling to overcome stereotypes, and being true to ourselves. When we add race, class, sexual identity, differences in physical appearance, or any other dynamics to that, it’s no wonder that being a young clergywoman sometimes feels impossible. We are the embodiment of a new order, and our very bodies beckon our congregations and communities to reflect on their role in individual and systemic injustices–and to change.

As our role models Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Parker have taught us, let us not question who we are or what we can do because others deny it. Let us speak truth to power about injustice, both through our consistent excellence and through our prophetic proclamations. Let us step into the places to which God has called us, and let our passage make wide the gates for other women beside us and those to come. Let us walk hand in hand, form unlikely friendships, cross societal divides, and mentor young people to do the same. Let us dream big dreams, be lifelong learners, and not be afraid to be the first at something.

I have been feeling the weight of this present darkness, and Hidden Figures reminded me of the light, which is always brighter. Always.

Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace is Assistant Professor of Church History at Memphis Theological Seminary.

Image by: KimManleyOrt
Used with permission
1 reply
  1. Joan C. Browning
    Joan C. Browning says:

    Courtney, a column I wrote a decade ago.
    Educating a Space Research Mathematician
    by Joan C. Browning
    Mountain Messenger, Saturday, July 14, 2007, page 3A

    White Sulphur Springs native Katherine Coleman Johnson is coming home. At 5 p.m. on July 29, the public is invited to come to the EMS building on Bob White Lane, off Route 92, to hear Mrs. Johnson talk about how she prepared for a thirty-three year career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

    For further information, contact Marva Calhoun at 536-5021.

    As an aerospace technologist in the Spacecraft Control Branch, Mrs. Johnson helped calculate space vehicle navigation and guidance. The Apollo moon shot was only one of the many NASA projects she helped guide to success.

    Johnson is the co-author of twenty-six technical papers on subjects such as orbital mechanics; arid space navigation and guidance; airplane and flight dynamics and automatic control system design; and control of large flexible space structures.

    The accolades and awards are truly “too numerous” to list here. She has been featured in the U.S. Office of Education Documentary on Practical Uses of Mathematics, as well as in DC’s Heath’s Fifth Grade Science textbook. Her alma mater and mine, West Virginia State College, named her the 1999 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.

    “I don’t do any formal lecture,” Mrs. Johnson told me. “I speak to young people about their aspirations and their desires and address the matter of preparing yourself.”

    And how did Mrs. Johnson prepare herself for a stellar career in the space program? By attending every school available to her after her birth in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26, 1918.

    Her first school was a two-room “colored” school in White Sulphur Springs. Next, she attended Bethune (colored) elementary school. That was all the public schooling Greenbrier County provided for African American students. It would be several more years before Bolling High School became the first high school available to black Greenbrier County students.

    Her father sold the family farm and took a job at The Greenbrier so the children could go to school. The family rented a house at Institute, West Virginia, where the mother and four children lived for eight years, September through June.

    “When we went to Institute, I enrolled in the eighth grade,” she told me. “My older brother and older sister enrolled in the high school, and my younger brother was in the seventh grade.”

    She fondly recalls the nurturing experiences at West Virginia State College. “The faculty took us under their wings, in high school and in college,” she said. “I loved school, and loving learning was a part of living.”

    She especially enjoyed foreign languages. A math professor convinced her to double major in French and mathematics. “He said I had the potential to be a research mathematician,” she reported.

    Miss Coleman graduated from West Virginia State College in 1937, in the middle of the Great Depression. “I took the only job I could find,” she said. It was teaching elementary school in Marion, Virginia, “a little furniture town.”

    A better job, one teaching high school mathematics, opened up in the Morgantown, West Virginia high school for black students.

    Katherine Coleman Johnson was the first black woman to attend West Virginia University. As she describes it, WVU asked for three WVSC graduates to attend summer school in 1939.

    “The atmosphere was not exactly welcoming,” she said.

    The Johnsons then lived in White Sulphur Springs with their three daughters for five years while Mr. Johnson commuted to a teaching job in Bluefield, Virginia.

    They found more plentiful jobs in Newport News, Virginia. From 1953 until 1986, Mrs. Johnson became the research mathematician her West Virginia State College professor had predicted.

    This local heroine used her mathematical genius in the space program. I didn’t, though I was entirely enchanted in 1957 when Sputnik blasted into space. I memorized Sputnik’s weights and trajectories and payloads. I spent hours gazing into the night sky and speculating on which of the twinkling bodies had been created by the Russians, not by the Great Creator.

    I really wanted to “do math” for the space program. I was told that I could prepare for that only by attending Georgia Institute of Technology. In the rigidly segregated South, I was excluded from attending Tech because of my gender.

    The 20th century was still young when The Greenbrier Independent (June 21, 1935) urged expanded college opportunities. At a time when elementary school was considered adequate for Katherine Coleman, “Giving children all the education they can afford” had a twofold purpose, the article said. “First, the duty to the children themselves, and second, the duty to the social order.” Education, the writer asserted, was essential “if society is to solve its ever-present intricate problems.”

    The experts running Greenbrier County schools thought elementary school education satisfied their duty to Katherine Coleman and to the social order. Because her family disagreed, Mrs. Johnson overcame vicious discrimination and used her mathematical abilities to help send Americans to the moon and back.

    How many of our children who may want to become scientists are even now educated for manual labor? How much brain power are we still wasting through discrimination because of race, gender, and class?

    Let us celebrate those families who, if necessary, bypass the education experts to prepare their children to their highest potential. As the experts tell us that schools must prepare children only for a new century, may we create other community institutions to equip all those who, like Katherine Coleman Johnson, may help us solve our ever-present intricate problems.


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