“I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened/ or full of argument…”  

Mary Oliver, from “When Death Comes”

That’s what I’ve been: sighing, frightened, and most of all, full of arguments. I have also been angry, every day angry, angry when I get up and remember in whose reign we live now; angry when I turn on the computer and see his latest tweet or read his latest lie; really, really angry as I watch the evening news, an hour of PBS’s The News Hour and another shuttling back and forth between CNN and MSNBC. (No, I don’t turn to Fox. There is some shit I will not eat, as e e cummings so famously asserted.) I do visit Breibart’s site now and then, just to give the other side another chance to outrage me. And I am angry when I go to bed and return to my reading, currently Eric Michael Dawson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. It is not an easy read; but with each chapter I finish, I think it is an important book for white Americans to read with deep concentration and a suspension of the easily summoned reactions of denial, defensiveness and guilt we hear when white privileged is mentioned.

In an attempt to distract myself from current events, yesterday I went to the movies. One luxury of the retired life is the early weekday matinee, further sweetened by lower ticket prices offered to seniors. The theater is never crowded, the largely senior population is courteous, if a bit noisy, possibly because we cannot hear one another’s whispered questions and comments. “What” softly ricochets off the seats and voices raise themselves to answer. Because and despite, I love afternoons at the movies. I went with a friend to see “Hidden Figures,” directed by Theodore Melfia, a conventionally satisfying film that tells the untold story of three African American women mathematicians, Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), whose genius contributed to  launching John Glenn into space. Who knew? I surely did not until I heard about this film. I expected to love it, seeing as it uncovers history at the intersection of race and gender. Of course, as I noted by way of introduction, I have been at an angry simmer every day since the election and longer than that about racism, personal and institutional, and its causal guardian, white privilege. In summary, I arrived at the theater as an angry, elderly, white, and always critical woman hoping to simmer down and enjoy.

The film follows a feel-good, happy-ending formula, albeit with a generous nod to Jim Crow and the early days of the Civil Rights movement. The heroes are the three Black women, boffins, a word I will bet some of you, like me, didn’t know. Ever the English teacher who never misses a chance to teach vocabulary, I’ll define it. A boffin is a person engaged in scientific or technical research, a person with knowledge or a skill considered to be complex, arcane, and difficult. The women portrayed in the Hidden Figures were, in real life, incredibly gifted mathematicians and engineers who built careers at NASA in 1961 segregated Virginia where they endured and prevailed against personal and institutional racism and discrimination by dint of patience, good manners, and sheer brilliance.  Katherine becomes the brains of the division whose mathematical calculations ensure the spacecraft’s liftoff and splashdown; Mary, encouraged by a survivor of the Nazis, turns to the court system to win admission to courses she needs to become an engineer; and Dorothy, the unofficial and underpaid manager of the “colored” human computers, as these human calculators were known in the old days before real computers arrived on the scene, figures out how to operate NASA’s new  room-sized IBM, gets promoted to official manager, and liberates her “girls” from their segregated office space. We see historical footage of early test launches and of John Glenn’s liftoff, glimpses of archival TV showing Russian space triumphs, Civil Rights marchers, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy. The film also features an amazing line up of period cars, their long fins sparking sunlight in a parking lot.  Lest the viewer feel stuck inside the grim bare halls of Langley, there are human interest sequences in which the three women socialize, attend church services, and dance. There’s a love story too, between the widowed Katherine and Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). Although the white people in power do not dominate the action, they play important roles that cry out to be interrogated. Kevin Cosner, always a reliable actor, does a fine job as Al Harrison, the bossman of Katherine’s section. As Paul Stafford, Jim Parsons does dour duty as a racist, sexist mathematician who tries to foil Katherine’s genius at every turn. Vivian Michael (Kirsten Dunst), Dorothy’s supervisor, is an indifferent ice princess who looks down her nose at Dorothy’s girls. By the end, however, all of the white folk learn their lessons and mend their racist ways, their reformations signified by small acts of kindness, such as Stafford offering Katherine a cup of coffee from a shared pot. Kirsten promotes Dorothy and they share a warm and fuzzy moment in the women’s room. After challenging Jim Crow law in court, Mary graduates as an engineer and continues to work with her mentor in the space program.

 

Hidden Figures is a serious film with a significant purpose: to tell an important untold story.  I am sure it will take its place in classrooms during either Black History or Women’s History month. So why did I leave the film feeling so conflicted? As I shuffled toward the exit, sorting through levels of anger to find what troubled me, I noticed that my friend was sobbing. She has a tender heart, but I could not figure out how this particular film could elicit tears. When I asked her, she said, “Oh, we were so hopeful back then and now it’s all gone.”  We were both alive and aware during the time period of the film, so I sort of knew what she meant. Then I found myself (remember, I am reading Dyson) thinking, “Who are the WE in that plaint?” I wondered if Black Americans were as hopeful back then that, as the film suggests,  good manners, good grooming, and patience allow Black people –geniuses in this case — to prevail and rise, pulled up by their own bootstraps and eventual good will of white folk, earned by all that non-militant behavior. I shocked myself with that angry thought, as if I were denigrating the efforts and endurance and courage of the real-life Black women, trying to survive and succeed at NASA.

I don’t know where fact and fiction part company in the film. I know the story is “based on” facts, and I am not questioning in any way the facts of the women’s genius, their importance to NASA, and their struggle to be recognized. Margaret is given one scene of straight up, loud indignation when she has to explain to her boss Al why she takes such long breaks. Soaking wet after running in high heels in pouring rain the half mile to the only building in which there are “colored” bathrooms (She has been told she cannot use the “white” bathrooms nearby.), she raises her voice indignantly; there is anger in her outrage but also self-control. In response, Al,  who has seemed oblivious to the callous discrimination Margaret endures daily from his all-white, all-male department, assumes the default position of the white male hero –he springs into action, wielding a crow bar to knock down the “colored women” sign outside the lavatory door. The scene is extended through several athletic whacks as the women from the “colored” computer room stand in a phalanx of surprise and awe. Old story: man rescues women in distress; white man uses white power to demolish racism.. Al proclaims as he strides away, “At NASA everyone pees the same color.” (Remember the line in the latest inaugural address –reassurance that we all bleed red?) That’s a feel-good moment for a white audience Later, in a less physical act of destruction, Al tears the “colored” label off the coffee pot reserved for Margaret’s use. And still later he asserts his authority to admit Margaret to secure briefings, inner sanctums reserved until then for whites. Glen Powell as John Glenn also gets to be a good white guy when he insists on shaking hands with the Black women gathered along with, but separate from, the white folks greeting his arrival at NASA.

As if to reassure audiences (male?)  that sexism is not the sole province of white men, Theodore Melfi builds in a scene in which Margaret’s Black suitor, Colonel Johnson, initially earns her scorn by questioning how a women can do her job. While I realize that serious drama requires some comic relief, I was discomfited by the chuckles prompted by repeated scenes of Margaret’s awkward run, in high heels, to the “colored” toilet. I found the repeats of the scene painful, maybe because I wore such high heels back then and know how hard it is to run in them, but more because I felt Margaret’s foot pain, bladder pressure, and embarrassment. I understand the uses of comic relief, but her humiliation is not funny. Am I carping here? Nit-picking?

I hope not, but I was conflicted, with yet another specific target for my anger, a feel-good film that didn’t make me feel all that good. On the positive side, Hidden Figures corrects a historical sin of omission. I am grateful I learned about these heroic African American women. We need to recover our lost histories. I also realize Hollywood movies have to make money; to do that, they have to entertain. When the subject is race, they also have to reassure their white audiences that African Americans can and do succeed, that our country is essentially fair, despite its long history of racism. And most significant (and dishonest to me), the film aims to reassure or convince us, depending on our personal views, that if Black people dress neatly, remain stolidly patient and dignified in the face of unfair treatment, mind their manners, and avoid making trouble or demands, they can eventually achieve the American dream of equal opportunity for all. It’s a version of you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if you make sure your boots are well polished. Yes, I know there were Eyes-on-the-Prize newsreel shots of civil rights activists, lunging dogs, and white racists. Yes, I know it was a long time ago. And yes, I know many people who will say that Black people have equal opportunities today; that as allies and advocates, we white folk can and should speak up, march, wear our buttons, vote, protest. What the film does not address, except glancingly if we read NASA as an institution, is the fact of white privilege deeply embedded in America from the time the first Africans were brought here as enslaved people. The film further reifies the old feel-good narrative of the “color-blind” white person who has an epiphany and begins to acts as an ally, if not an advocate.

Ordinary, well-meaning people can perform individual and collective acts of non-racist solidarity and advocacy until hell freezes over. I can write and speak and argue and wear my buttons and agree with Ta Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander and Rev. Dyson; in fact I do. I have come to believe, however, nurtured on their words and those of James Baldwin, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and so many others, that we cannot cure institutional racism by individual acts of good will. I believe we need some kind of national acknowledgment of the historical effects of racism on the fabric of our culture; I believe we need some mechanism of reparation as well. Recently Georgetown offered a small scale model of acknowledgement and reparation. The school acknowledged that it had profited from the sale of enslaved people; then it moved to make reparations by offering a kind of legacy leg up in admissions to the descendants of those enslaved people. One school, one model, probably not enough to some critics. But they are trying, as an institution, to admit and pay back.  Remember: it took until 2016 for the National Museum of African American History and Culture to show up on the National Mall. In Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative is just now building a memorial to victims lynched by white mobs. We need similar action and education at the national, institutional level:  formal admissions of the damages of slavery and its aftermath. Then reparations. I am not a policy wonk or an economics expert. I can think, however, of areas such as housing, medical care, education, nutrition, safety in which African American citizens still suffer from the effects of a long history of systematic discrimination, ghettoization, poverty, and incarceration. It takes money as well as will to make amends for historical injustices; in this time of alternative facts and tax breaks for the wealthy; of vast sums of defense money wasted in the Middle East, of plans for a multi-billion dollar wall,  I do not expect to see any effort, gesture or viable initiative pointing toward acknowledgement and reconciliation.

So what do I do with this chronic anger that Hidden Figures did not soothe? Well, for me anger about the persistent effects of racism is a liberal luxury in the sense that while I am so angry and indignant, I still enjoy the benefits of white middle class privilege. I can hear some of you telling me how hard I worked, in school, in my career, as a parent, to get to this comfortable retirement that allows me afternoons at the movies. I did work hard, but I had a head start, not in the form of wealth but of opportunity.  Born in 1940, I had the burden of sexist laws and rules to throw me off track. Women’s Rights and Civil Rights were the first causes for which I acted. Although sexism was deeply institutionalized, we demolished most of the legal barriers and official discouragements. Our culture more or less admits that women were objects of systemic discrimination and that such discrimination was more or less wrong. (Again, since the election, I suspect that institutions will conspire against women again, especially in terms of reproductive rights. And the women most affected will be poor women, among whose ranks Black women number many.)

I call myself a radical feminist, one who wishes to see patriarchy overthrown. Years ago, I and many other white feminist activists failed to share power with women of color. We assumed that white women’s issues were common to all women. Of course we denounced racism; many of us were veterans of the Civil Rights movement.  So while we agitated for reproductive freedom, equality in professional schools and board rooms and Ivy League colleges, we didn’t pay attention to the ways poverty, de facto segregated schools, access to affordable housing, mass incarceration were also women’s issues. When I began to study the ways race, class and gender intersect, I started seeing the world through a different lens. Race is a cultural construct: I can’t be white (and therefore privileged) unless there is a non-white category as well. White and black as identities are what they are because they have been historically constructed to privilege one group over another. Obama was a “black” president because of a cultural construct that he embraced but did not create. The concerns of Trump’s white underclass –low pay, poverty, lack of access to affordable education –have long been the unaddressed concerns of a large portion of our African American community. Part of Trump’s appeal was to convince followers that they had been neglected as the government poured tax dollars into crime and drug ridden inner cities. He played on the old myth of white superiority and unleashed raw expressions of racism that we thought were at least publicly silenced.

In terms of racism, we have not officially admitted our historical defects, nor have we made amends to mend the cultural fabric. I must look to people more experienced than I to put forth realistic suggestions for such a process. Among others, Ta Nehisi Coates has made a case for reparation; it was not greeted with enthusiasm or action.  I see nothing on the horizon that bodes well for future efforts. Thus I must conclude, we are dammed up together in a river of collective anger and sorrow. We expect, we blame, we diagnose, we deny, we rage. Our current leaders encourage the dogma of individual effort and responsibility along with tough law and order. A country-club’s worth of rich white men rule our country, with Ben Carson allowed token membership. The poster boys of white privilege will go after anything that smacks of affirmative action, sentencing reform, prison reform, fair wages, housing assistance. My critique of Hidden Figures arises from my opinion that the film reassures and validates the American ideal of individual will and power without acknowledging, let alone exploring, institutional racism and white privilege. In fairness, the film intends to tell a story, a real story about three brilliant and determined black women who endured and prevailed. The actors are terrific, the period details perfect, the tone uplifting. It is, however, also the reassuring story of how “good” white people exercised white power to challenge discrimination based on gender and race. I think the film says to me, a white woman, that my acts of advocacy, my willingness to be an ally, my good will and tolerance can make a big difference. At this point in our history, I think we need to do more as a nation to demand institutional, systemic change. I don’t expect that change to happen any time soon, but I want to add my voice to an urgent call.

I end this entry as angry as when I started to write it. Finally this is what I can do, write, even if it does not make any difference at all. I can critique popular culture as it informs and affects us. I can try to speak truth to power. So if you are reading this rant, stay tuned for a review of another film, the documentary “13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay. I suggest Rev. Eric Dyson’s new book as well, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.

Thank you for reading. I will be interested in your comments.

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “

  1. I am angry at how hard these women worked to get where they were! Now this country is going backward! Everyday there are hate signs paraided around. How can we put all groups of diversity in one group? Not all Muslims are bad or part of ISIS! Now everyone is being kept out of the US it is just not right. Sorry for the rant this just brought out these feelings.

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  2. Paula–I am deeply moved by your review of Hidden Figures and your passionate, thoughtful, razor-sharp observations. (I would expect nothing else from you). We need to continue to be open and honest about anger, rage, and history repeating itself. I am moved beyond words to read your words (at least you are not moved beyond words!) Please keep writing. Your voice matters. With admiration, Shantih Clemans, Brooklyn, NY

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  3. I worried from the brief review I heard on All Things Considered in December that the movie might leave me feeling similarly conflicted. I’ll wait to stream it on the small screen, I think. 13th is a different story, however! That’s coming quickly to the top of my queue. Like Shantih, I’m so grateful you’re sharing these ideas as you work through them. Write on, and brava again!

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