Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Three Lessons of "Hidden Figures"

I just saw a film that sent electric shocks through my body from beginning to end.  The film was "Hidden Figures."  The film tells the story of three remarkable African American women who worked for NASA in the post-war South and in so doing helped the United States reach space.  The film made me laugh, but also cry.  The film inspired me, but also enraged me.  Watching the film, I turned to my 12-year-old boy too often to try to explain the unexplainable.  How do you explain "Freedom Summer" and the "Freedom Rides"?  How do you explain and try to make sense of segregation and the need to walk to a bathroom half a mile away because the bathroom next to your working space is "for whites only," only to return to your desk and find your supervisor in your face because you disappeared for too long?  What do you say when your child asks you, "when did the Klan stop killing people"?

What do you say?

As I watched the film, three over-arching lessons kept racing through my mind.  The first was about the film itself and the history it depicts.  Where did these moments in history go?  Where have they been?  And how do these movies help us recover them?  The film reminds me of the early history of Reconstruction, and particularly the writings of the Dunning School.  This early history understood the freedmen as lazy, unenlightened, and undeserving of the rights that Reconstruction had granted them.  This is no longer the way we remember this period .  How do we explain this change in the historiography of Reconstruction?  This question forces us to ask more general questions: What is history? Who owns it? How do we change it?  How do we make sense of the past?

In thinking about these questions, it is important to remember Eric Foner's warning about revisionist history:
It’s hard for people not versed in history to get the point on why historical interpretation changes. In the general culture “revisionist historian” is a term of abuse. But that is what we do. Revising history is our job. So every historian is a revisionist historian in some sense.
This is what "Hidden Figures" means to me.  History is full of hidden figures.  It is important to reflect on who they are, why they are hidden, and who is hiding them.

The second lesson is about the Constitution.  Our Constitution.  The film offers a subtle lesson about the Constitution and its meaning as lived experience.  One of the three central characters in the film, Mary Jackson, wants to be an engineer yet needs to fulfill some graduate-level courses, which are offered by the University of Virginia through the local high school. The local white high school.  The year was 1961.  Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954.  The question whether Ms. Jackson could have taken courses at the local high school should have been settled by Brown, but it was not.  The courtroom scene is important for what it teaches us about our Constitution and the scope of our rights.  Ms. Jackson goes to court to enforce Brown, yet the judge reminds her that this is Virginia.  He ultimately allows her to go to school, but only night school.

The lesson is clear.  The Constitution is nothing but words on paper.  By itself, the Constitution means nothing, but it can mean everything.  The Constitution, those words on paper, are whatever we want them to be.  If you need an explicit example, look no further than the history of the Fifteenth Amendment.  The freedmen came to the polls in large part through the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which forced the former confederate states to allow Blacks to vote and take office as a pre-condition of rejoining the Union.  The Fifteenth Amendment nationalized what the Reconstruction Act had imposed on the South three years earlier.  This is the climax of Black political participation in the 19th Century.  Then, like a slow burn, Black voter turnout began to dwindle.  By the turn of the century, the Fifteenth Amendment had come to mean nothing.  It was a dead letter.  In some parts of the country, Black political participation had decreased by large percentages, in some places by 100%.

This is a remarkable development.  How does it make sense for Dr. King to ask for the ballot in 1957 in a world where the 15th Amendment is the law of the land?  This takes us back to the earlier question: what is the Constitution?  The Constitution is whatever we decide that it is, understood through the sweat and tears of political struggle.  Put a different way: constitutional rights are not given to us.  They never have been and never will be.  In the brave new post-2016 election world, this is a crucial lesson.  The upcoming women's march on Washington is a fitting start.  But it is only a start.

The third lesson is about talent.  And merit.  And the promise of equality.  The women in the film were clearly talented and met whatever definition of merit one wishes to adopt.  And yet, as we raced the Soviets to the moon, we cast them aside.  Racism is really that powerful.  How do we overcome it?  How do we overcome and move past years of oppression and discrimination? That is the question of our time.  But this is not a new question.  One popular conservative answer is that only our stubborn refusal to see and use racial categories will help us to overcome race and racism.  I wish I could believe that.  This is not to say that we will not get there.  It is to say, however, that we have been trying to overcome racism for generations.

Katherine Johnson, the woman at the center of the movie, did get the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

By our first Black president.  

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