Hidden Figures

What a great title for a missing part of American history. This is the untold story of the vital contributions of African American women to American aviation and the NASA space program. Untold because historically women have been diminished or ignored, moreso women of color. In other words, this is a story of inequality based on race and gender.

Hidden FiguresStill playing in movie theaters after opening last December, the feature film based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly has struck a resounding chord in our culture. It captures the American can-do spirit with female protagonistsintelligent, strong women of color who don’t take “No” for an answer. I can’t think of another movie in recent years with female main characters working in a math and science environment.

I was mesmerized watching Taraji P. Henson in the role of Katherine Johnson writing math equations and solutions on a blackboard with supreme confidence. She was simply demonstrating what she knew, but also informing the room full of men that a black woman has just as much intelligence as they have. And maybe more.

The film has adapted a small section of the larger story of these women who worked as human computers verifying the computations of white male engineers. This was during the time of segregation so they worked as a separate unit from white men and women. Some of these hidden figures later advanced to work as peers with the men. The encouragement of their forward-thinking, enlightened parents permitted these girls to study and enjoy math. Most ended up as teachers; some heard about better-paying jobs in the federal government aviation program in Hampton, Virginia, which later became NASA.

After seeing the movie and reading the book, I experienced feelings of immense triumph for these women and women in general.  A sense of sadness followed. I was thinking about many other girls and women who don’t have opportunities for education and therefore can’t discover their talents, skills, and passion. This is a loss for individuals, yes, but also for our society and country. The women in Hidden Figures made significant contributions to their families, communities, and our country. How many people’s ambitions and potential are thwarted because of racism, sexism, and other biases?

Imagine if each American child has the same opportunities for education regardless of class, race, and gender. 

Imagine if they have the freedom to explore their talents, to challenge their minds without fear of failure and shame.

Imagine if each female is unhindered by sexual harassment or assault or any kind of sexism that would make her doubt herself.

Our current rape culture on campuses, in our armed services, in our families is destroying lives and compromising human potential. Many women don’t report these crimes because the system does not provide fairness, support, or justice to most victims. Few perpetrators are punished. In fact, victims are often blamed and punished for being raped.

The April issue of The Atlantic Magazine features an article that reveals how qualified women are still facing gender bias in the workplace, specifically in computer science. “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” reminds us how slowly attitudes are changing. As we’re encouraging girls to enter STEM programs to provide skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and math, thus providing higher-paying jobs for women, the work environments in these fields sound all too similar to what Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson faced in the 1940s and 1950s.

The old boys club is alive and well, with all its ploys to keep women “in their place.” Women    in male-dominated fields today, like technology, are finding a hostile work environment where they are being blocked in getting promotions and creative opportunities. The article describes a survey of women in technology: “84%…had been told they were too aggressive; 66% had felt excluded from key networking opportunities because of their gender; 90% had witnessed sexist behavior at conferences and company off-site meetings….” And so it goes.

Gender bias still exists and is detrimental to individuals, society, and our country. It pulls everyone down, wounds and weakens our democracy. It’s true that there have been moments of success and triumph when a woman has stepped forward out of the shadows and been recognized for her talent, courage, or contribution. But many of these stories are still hidden. I wonder what would have happened to John Glenn’s space flight if Katherine Johnson had not provided the accurate computations for his return to earth. She did and he became an American hero. Only now decades later, she is receiving the recognition she so rightfully deserves.

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Kehinde Wiley & Ta-Nehisi Coates

In this Black History Month of 2017, I wonder if anyone has thought about inviting artist Kehinde Wiley and journalist/author Ta-Nehisi Coates to appear together on the same stage. I think this would be an exciting and provocative conversation between literature and art.

In Between the World and Me, Coates is writing to his son. He wants to prepare him for navigating through this world as a Black man. There are some practical things his son needs to know. What struck me as a reader was the corporeal reality of the African American experience that he describes.

He writes, “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

Again and again, he reminds us that Black bodies are being defiled, plundered, controlled, taken, broken, shattered. The violence is historic and continues today. He believes that “The larger culture’s erasure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies.” As a father, he understands that his son is his own individual, but he wants his son to understand the history and context of the ongoing devastation appearing in the news: Black lives being destroyed by our police forces, being incarcerated in high percentages, being demoralized, disempowered, and experiencing little justice.

Coates wants to educate his son about the reality of being Black. The dangers. The assumptions. The judgments. The “justifications” for violence. The anguish of this father should give pause to all thoughtful Americans.

Coates’s feelings and observations are valid. American history confirms his thoughts and feelings about the racism in our country. At the same time, Kehinde Wiley is changing the narrative of Black American lives with his paintings by bringing attention to the bodies of Black people, by reclaiming them in works of art, in elegance and beauty.

Wiley says, “The history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence.”

I saw his work for the first time in a stunning exhibit “A New Republic” at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) about a year ago. Wiley is a Black American living and working in Brooklyn and Beijing. His use of large canvases displays the remarkable faces and bodies of African Americans—people whom the artist has often pulled off the streets of America. These people are not only immortalized in his paintings, they perhaps are given the chance to see themselves differently, important and larger than life. Empowered instead of disempowered.

When I saw these paintings, I recognized some of the postures and accoutrement as the same ones featured in other portraits of European nobility, warriors, other men of power living in earlier centuries. Many of his paintings are huge, impressive. The viewer cannot help being impressed by a painting that fills a wall; artists in earlier centuries and their subjects understood that sheer size does convey messages of wealth and power. However, instead of White Europeans, Wiley depicts contemporary Black men of varying ages and hues striking these poses of power often against a background of elegant wallpaper or vibrant flora.

Wiley is committing an act of revolution to subvert how people might see Black Americans and what they hear about crimes involving Black Americans. It’s an act of empowerment. Unexpected and unforgettable.

While culture and politics have appropriated Black bodies to the needs of the dominant White culture, Wiley has appropriated portraiture elements of Western art to make a statement about Black lives. He is reclaiming and reminding us of the beauty of the bodies and faces that some would judge and condemn.

Wiley’s art is a quiet revolution. It won’t change the hearts and minds of racists. It won’t stop the violence against Blacks. But it reminds people that Black people are diverse. They are strong. They have dignity and grace. The SAM brochure describes Wiley’s work: “Elevating people of color, giving them a sense of presence and visibility in countries or cultures where they were long absent from representations of power, is at the heart of this endeavor.”

Coates and Wiley are two Black American men expressing themselves eloquently. Their messages are similar, yet different. One uses the power of words, while the other, the power of visual art. We need both to completely understand the Black American experience.

Black History Month is really for all Americans. It is an opportunity to be informed and hopefully recognize that all of our histories are connected in One America.

February is Black History Month

In the space of one week, I attended an art exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum here in Seattle “The Fabric of Our lives: Tales of Dirty Laundry, White Sheets & Bodies–In Parts,” saw the movie Selma, and read Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped.

I had not intentionally planned to immerse myself into African American history during this last week of January, but the confluence of images and stories was a great reminder of the ongoing struggles of African Americans that unfortunately we are still witnessing.

I am interested in this history as an American because we Americans need to be aware of all our history, especially those pieces we are not proud of, because they impact our present. I also have a vested interest in this history as a woman of color; this history of racism and prejudice is similar to my Chinese ancestors’ history in America, and therefore, the strength and courage of African Americans to survive and fight for their rights have paved the way for me and other Americans, who have been and are disadvantaged, different, and non-white.

Artist Anastacia Tolbert has created artwork influenced by her slave ancestry. The exhibit runs through March 22. It is provocative and uncomfortable. If you get a chance to see it, and I highly recommend it, take a break between viewings. Although it’s not a big exhibit, there’s a lot to take in and process. The paintings and other elements in the exhibit may appear benign at first glance, but the violence of white people against their slaves is the real story here and inescapable.

Selma. This is a great movie with fine actors. If you don’t know the history of the struggle for Civil Rights, then you should see this movie. If you don’t remember this history, then you need to be reminded. Again, this will be uncomfortable to watch, but necessarily so. The violence and injustice against Black Americans has continued into the twentieth century from the time of slavery.

Men We Reaped puts faces on the tragedy of racism. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and we Americans are still struggling with this issue. Ward’s casual tone belies the urgency and fatalism of the characters. Despite the darkness of despair that she reveals in her poor Black community in Mississippi, her writing shines a light of love and compassion on her family, community, and the lives of the young men lost.

Ward writes:

Racism, poverty, and violence are the primary factors that encourage depression in Black men, and I’d guess that this is true for Black women as well. Seven percent of African American men develop depression during their lifetime, and according to experts, this is probably an underestimate due to lack of screening and treatment services. They will not get care for their mental disorders….Not treating these mental disorders costs Black men and women dearly, because when mental disorders aren’t treated, Black men are more vulnerable to incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, homicide, and suicide, and all of these, of course, affect not just the Black men who suffer from them but their families and the glue that holds the community together as well.

I gained a deeper appreciation for Black parents who justifiably fear for the safety and well-being of their children. This fear is profound. This goes back centuries to broken families, whether from abductions in Africa or the selling of slave children away from their parents or random killings of Black people. Black parents carry generations of grief, fear, and Injustice. And it’s a heavy weight.

Kudos to these artists for their courage in sharing and reminding us about their pain, which truly affects all of us. Until someone writes the whole history of how greed and oppression built our country, we would do well to review and understand African American history, the legacies of our slave culture, and also the many, many contributions of the Black men and women in our communities throughout America.

Aging & Going Rogue

In The New York Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor admitted:

“As for putting books down without finishing them, I do that all the time. When you pass 70, you are no longer obligated to finish what you’ve started, not a book, not a meal, not even a sentence.”

Is Keillor saying that getting old is something to look forward to? This what-the-hell attitude–I don’t have time for this. Next! I can imagine walking away in mid-sentence. “As I was saying….” But this might be more concern for senility and not just newly-found orneriness.

And is it possible to abandon the clean-plate imperative drummed into me from childhood? Not only were me and my siblings harangued by the plight of starving children in China, we six children were competing for that often non-existent extra piece of pie or seconds of stew. As a large family we certainly didn’t starve, but we were a ravenous group.

Maybe at 70, I too might be more acutely conscious of my time left on the planet. And less patient with reading something difficult to understand or just not my style. But with so many good books out there, maybe I should adopt this attitude now and not wait. Time is already too precious.

Or I can invoke my mantra: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Perhaps Keillor’s comment stirs me most poignantly as a writer and a reader.

As a reader, I usually feel compelled to read a book to the end. Most of the time, I’m happy that I continued reading even though it didn’t engage me in the first 20-30 pages. Some works have a slow start, but come together and take hold of me eventually.

I remember trying to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Some of the slaves’ experiences were so visceral, so intense that I had to put it down. Twice. I finally finished it when it was assigned for a class–and happily so. The instructor’s notes and insights helped immensely and just having others grappling with the the narrative and characters fortified me to handle the story. A communal spirit really made a difference.

Sometimes I put a book down and go back to it later. Sometimes I don’t. We all do this, right?

As a writer, I have started essays and stories that sit unintentionally abandoned in my files. No problem there in not finishing them as I became involved in other projects that I did complete. But what to do with these bits and pieces?

I imagine most writers have this problem. Perhaps it’s not really a problem, but just part of the process of writing. We have to start somewhere. I know I’ve started a piece of writing to experiment on something like dialogue. Or I wanted to see what it feels like to construct a fictional character. These were exercises.

Other times I started writing a piece, then discovered a kernel of an idea I was more interested in pursuing, and took off in that direction. Writing is often about discovery. Like starting a piece and having a sense of where it’s going only to find out it needs to go somewhere else. This is the joy of writing. Letting the writing take you somewhere unexpected.

This is the practice of writing: not everything will be finished. Not everything will be good or even close to good. This is life.