For My Black Girls

In January, 2017, my family and I watched the movie Hidden Figures about “three brilliant African-American women at NASA — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — serve as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race and galvanized the world (http://www.google.com).” During the movie, I was so impressed by the life lessons being taught – and the application of those lessons for my two young daughters – that I quickly grabbed my phone to jot down a few of them.

“Yes. NASA let’s women do some things and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.”

In one scene, Katherine Johnson has her first conversation with her eventual husband, a military man. After learning that Katherine works at NASA, he passes a comment that illustrates his inherent misogyny. Katherine’s response beautifully informs him of her credentials while maintaining the grace and eloquence her character is eventually known for. Too often we allow the comments of others to alter the brilliance that catapulted us to where we are in our lives. Never leave those who attempt to belittle you uncorrected. But do it in a way that will always remind them of your brilliance.

“They’ve already been checked. This is more or less a dummy check.”

A white male character is offended that his boss has asked Katherine to double-check his work. After he slamms documents down on Katherine’s desk, she reviews them and notices that they are heavily redacted. She complains that she is unable to review the documents properly if she cannot see everything on them and he responds, “They’ve already been checked. This is more or less a dummy check.” Young girls should always remember that the work given to you reflects the level of competence you are thought to possess. Once you know what someone truly thinks about you, it is up to you to decide whether or not you will live down to their expectation or live up to your own.

“How’d you know about the Atlas rocket? That’s not math.” “I held up to the light.”

After making sense of the highly redacted documents and reporting her analysis to the boss, Katherine is called into a room and questioned. They can’t believe she made sense of what others would have considered nonsense. Katherine’s response is both literal and metaphorical. When people give you nonsense, challenge yourself to make sense of it and turn into brilliance. Holding things up to the light always brings about a different perspective. Be the only person would think of a particular solution!

“Are you a Russian spy?” “No I’m not Russian.”

Just before Katherine explains that she held the documents up to the light, she is asked if she is a Russian spy. She replies, “No. I’m not Russian.” Again, the stupidity of others doesn’t always require your explicit declaration of their stupidity. Sometimes, a transparent and lucid response highlights the stupidity of your accuser, better than any insult you can hurl at them.

“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all.”

Mary Jackson is shown as her boss walks into the room. During the course of the conversation, Mary Jackson explains that she would like to become an engineer. Her boss explains – with disgust – that she does not meet the qualifications for the position, which has recently changed and that “Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all.” It is important that black girls understand that some people may think they are doing you a favor. Don’t let it be a weight on your psyche, but never forget that for some people your current position is more than you already deserve.

“You took that book mama?” “I pay taxes. You can’t take what you already paid for. Fortran is a new and exciting language.”

Dorothy Vaughan’s character is seen in a library reading a book. Through a space in the book stack, a white woman is seeing peering at Dorothy and says, “We don’t want any trouble,” then, she asks her to leave. Dorothy explains that she is reading. The white woman explains that there is a different section for colored people. After replying that the books she needs are not in the colored section, Dorothy and her children are escorted out of the library and later seen on a bus, where she removes a book from her purse. Her child asks, “You took that book mama?” And Dorothy responds, “I pay taxes. You can’t take what you already paid for. 'Fortran is a new and exciting language,' Dorothy begins to read” Black girls need to know that knowledge is power. And, they will frequently encounter people who vigorously oppose their attainment of knowledge. In fact, some people will actively try to obstruct their access to knowledge. Knowing this, black girls should be ready to take knowledge, without asking for permission. Never let anyone stand between you and the knowledge you need to advance yourself and attain your goals.

“Where have you been?”

The camera pans up to Katherine’s boss’ office. He paces back and forth looking at Katherine’s empty desk, expressing anger. When Katherine re-enters the office, after having walked over half a mile each way to and from the colored restroom on a different part of NASA’s campus. She is confronted by her boss, asking her where she’s been. He yells that she disappears for almost an hour every day and demands to know where she goes. Her response begins as a rumbling explanation and erupts – when he challenges her initial response with disbelief – into an uncontrolled declaration of all things racist that she is forced to endure daily in that office. In life, there will be people who are clueless to the hurdles you jump over every day. Hurdles that they – either directly or indirectly – placed in your path. And they will challenge your work ethic. They are unaffected by those hurdles and therefore will pass judgment on you without having the clarity of mind to understand your plight. Never pass up the opportunity to highlight these obstacles and give others an opportunity to remove them. Sometimes a diplomatic answer will suffice. At other times, a more vigorous response is required. The level of injustice you face should determine your level of response, especially when your character is challenged as a result of the barrier(s) placed in front of you.

“Thank you gentlemen.”

After a test flight, Katherine is seen on the periphery of a room of excited white men who are jubilant about the success of the test flight. Katherine’s boss joyously exclaims: “Thank you gentlemen.” By this point in the film, you already get the sense that Katherine’s boss is a decent person. However, it is clear that for all Katherine’s pivotal work, she is not thought of as a member of the team. Always remember that your work cannot be denied. People will try to deny it. Others will forget to attribute it to you. But in the end, your work will not be forgotten. Take pride in your accomplishments, even when they are not acknowledged or even attributed to you.

“I have no choice but to be the first. Out of all the cases you’re gonna hear today, which one is gonna matter the most a hundred years from now? Which one is gonna make you the first?”

Mary Jackson is portrayed as a “never take no for an answer” woman who does not know “her place.” After being turned down for an engineering position she applied for, she is told that she lacks the requisite classes for the position. Unfortunately the only school offering the classes Mary needs to be eligible for the position are offered at an all white high school. Mary files a petition and enters a courtroom to be heard about her case. She’s done a bevy research on the judge's background and proceeds to tell him about all the ways he has been a pioneer in order to achieve his role as judge. In the end, she challenges him with the duality of being a pioneer one last time, so that she too can be a pioneer. Never give up because of the limits others have allowed to curtail their dreams. See and expect the best in others, even when you know they don’t like you, simply for who you are. We can all change. Expect that change. Expect the best in others.

“Within these walls, who is the boss?” “You sir! You sir! You just have to act like one.”

Katherine is seen peering into a room where high level individuals are meeting to discuss and plan for the launch. Katherine is told by her white colleague (self-declared nemesis) that she doesn’t belong there and that there is no protocol for having a woman in those meetings. Katherine protests, citing the fact that the data changes so rapidly that not having her in the room puts her and the mission at a disadvantage. The dialogue comes to a head when her white male colleague defers to the boss and asks “Within these walls, who is the boss?” Katherine quickly replies, “You sir! You sir! You just have to act like one.” Leaders don’t always remember to lead from the front. Sometimes, they become followers (leaders in name only). Good leaders should be able to hear and accept critical feedback. When you become a leader, never forget those two lessons: lead if that is your role and always be open to feedback.

“Latoya, we’ve been reassigned.”

Dorothy’s boss stops her in the hallway. The boss tells her that she has received the promotion she requested – after solving the IBM mainframe issues the white males upstairs could not fix. Dorothy, who has been secretly training the rest of the “colored computers,” asks about what will happen to her team. The boss informs her that they will remain for a short time and then will be let go. In a moment where the fortitude of Dorothy’s character shines through, she declines the promotion, telling her boss that she will not accept the position, unless her team comes with her. “They’re ready!” she explains. A short while later, Dorothy enters the room where her team is and says, “Latoya, we’ve been reassigned.” Sometimes to make a difference you may need to risk your own promotion in order to bring others with you. In fact, while you are preparing for your own promotion, always remember to prepare those around you too. This is not just the right thing to do as one disenfranchised person for another. It is a key survival tactic. Whenever you begin a new position, especially as a leader, you need people around you whose skillsets you know well and whose character you can trust. Always bring your own team with you! It allows you to hit the ground running without having to explain yourself, justify your position or train people in your leadership style.

“You know what your job is? To find the genius among the geniuses. We all get to the peak together or we don’t get there at all.” “Yes sir. Goodnight.”

While watching Katherine work, her boss asks Katherine’s white male colleague, “You know what your job is?” When he doesn’t respond, he continues, “To find the genius among the geniuses. We all get to the peak together or we don’t get there at all.” Although you always want to see the best in people, remember that some people do not have the best of the team at heart. They are more preoccupied with their own self-serving interests and are willing to sabotage the team’s success if the glory for that success will ultimately go to you. Even in the moment of receiving this important nugget of wisdom, the response Katherine’s colleague utters shows his indifference to it. He simply responds, “Yes sir. Goodnight.”

“The curriculum is not designed to teach a woman.” “I would imagine it’s the same as teaching a man. Should I just take any seat? I don’t see a colored section.”

Mary Jackson gleefully enters the classroom of the all white high school, after receiving permission from the judge – albeit with the caveat that she only attend at night. The teacher and students look at her as if she is out of place. She hands the teacher her paperwork to which he responds, “The curriculum is not designed to teach a woman.” Mary responds, I would imagine it’s the same as teaching a man.” She then asks, “Should I just take any seat? I don’t see a colored section.” There will be conditions around you presently, where the insanity of it has not set in for everyone else yet. Don’t let that stop you from acting as if the change you know is coming has not already arrived. Additionally, once you’ve already placed yourself in that frame of mind, don’t take a step back by acknowledging the previous rules – in this case, asking where to sit. Step forward boldly and don’t look back!

“You know Dorothy, despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” “I know. I know you probably believe that.”

Dorothy enters the restroom as her former boss is exiting a stall. The interaction is tense as you get the sense that Dorothy’s presence in the restroom, as a woman of color, is still not received well by the white staff. The scene intensifies when Dorothy’s former boss is forced to accept a paper towel from Dorothy to dry her hands. As Dorothy turns to exit the restroom her former boss says, “You know Dorothy, despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” Dorothy responds, “I know,” which immediately causes a look of relief to fill her former boss’ face. That look quickly disappears as Dorothy continues, “I know you probably believe that.” People will lie to you and to themselves. And in that moment, they expect you to play the game and lie in return. This is a fools game. At the right time, when you have established yourself as a boss in your own right, bring the game to an end. And make it clear that you no longer are playing that game.

“The day I met you I told my mama, I met the woman I want to marry.” “What did your mama say?” “She said, ‘she must be something.’” “And what did you say?” “I said, she’s more than something. She’s everything.”

The scene opens to show Katherine and her family sitting at the dinner table with her love interest. He kneels and instantly Katherine begins to cry, knowing that he is about to propose. He begins, “The day I met you, I told my mama, I met the woman I want to marry.” Katherine’s daughter asks, “What did your mama say?” “She said, ‘she must be something,’ he replied” “And what did you say?” the daughter continued. “I said she’s more than something. She’s everything!” When you grow up, there will come a time that you will want to get married. You deserve someone who thinks you are everything. Never settle for less. And be worthy of being viewed that way. Practice being viewed that way from now.

“Go find Katherine or we stay on the ground.”

As the final checks are being made before the launch of the Friendship 7 Capsule, John Glenn is seen demanding that Katherine’s boss double-check and verify the numbers. When he pauses, John Glenn asks if Katherine has confirmed the numbers. When he cannot answer yes, John Glenn refuses to make the mission unless Katherine double-checks the numbers. Katherine’s boss sends a runner to take the numbers to her to verify – she had been returned to working at the colored area of the NASA campus. The runner is shown running across NASA’s campus to take Katherine the documents. In the moment that complete exhaustion becomes evident on his face, you immediately connect that this is the same half-mile journey Katherine had to run to and from the restroom every day. Sometimes, the only way to fully understand someone is to walk the proverbial mile in her shoes. Always remember that you cannot truly understand someone’s point of view until you have been where they have been. Be patient with others who can’t understand your point of view. Remember that they have been fortunate enough to have had the unique experiences that make you who you are.

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"Biased people bias people. Better people better people." - David Martin