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.

Performance!

I am a writer, not a performer. However, I have done public readings, which is a form of performance when done well. Recently, I read with eleven other Seattle writers in a program called “Listen To Your Mother” (LYTM). Feeling the energy in the room from the audience and from each other, we were all transformed. We had rehearsed before the event, but everyone stepped up and gave more of themselves during the program, a performance anthology of stories about mothers and motherhood.

It was magical! See for yourself. Here’s the link to my performance. You can also watch the other fabulous writers; I still laugh and cry when I see/hear them.

 

After this performance, I began thinking about what happens during a live performance. What makes live performances so exciting? When I go to a theater or concert hall, why do I feel a little nervous, this low hum of electricity in my body that makes me breathless?

From a performer’s perspective, I want to do my best. I want to convey my story, let the words flow through my body in an expressive way that the audience can relate to. I had practiced how to use my voice for emphasis, dramatic pauses, and to include a variety of intonations. I had practiced using my body to communicate a shift in the story, to look and connect with the audience.

On the day of the performance, we lined up to get ready to go on stage. We all felt some combination of excitement and butterflies. We got the signal and began walking to our chairs. When the audience started clapping during our entry, I teared up. I thought, “They want to be here! They want to hear us!!”

We sat on the stage and gave our attention to each writer as she took the podium. We all loved each other’s stories and had quickly bonded during our few meetings. We gave each other our attention, love, and support, and we could also feel this from the audience, mostly family and friends of the writers. But they were sending positive energy to everyone, not just the one writer they knew.

When I took the podium, I was still teary from the initial welcoming and the wave of support I felt from the audience.

It’s not easy to take the stage. When artists, whether musicians, singers, dancers, actors, or writers, perform live, we are communicating our art to connect with an audience. We strive for perfection, but mistakes can happen. But so can brilliance. Anything can happen when art is being created. In the moment. Right here.

Honestly, I am more comfortable being in the audience rather than on the stage. I find it magical to watch another human making art, to let the words or the music wash over me, to feel the rhythms and sounds, to experience the story come alive with the staging, lights, sets, and costumes all working together with the performers—the various elements coming together and coalescing into something whole and unique and hitting all my sensory receptors. Even in a public setting, this experience can feel intimate, like sharing a secret.

Any time people are performing, the audience becomes an integral part of that performance. The audience is not passive. There’s social interaction with those who accompany you and perhaps with other audience members. The fact is, when someone chooses to leave the comfort of their homes to be present in a particular location, they are making a decision to interact. With other people and with the performers. It’s an unconscious contract. It’s an energy exchange, this flow from the stage to the seats in the auditorium, concert hall, or even the park; whether it’s laughing or crying, holding our breath, feeling shock, applauding or booing, the performers can feel the audience and its moods, and they respond accordingly. The audience offers both silent collaboration and dynamic, spontaneous responses.

I am so, so grateful for having had such a wonderful, supportive audience at the LTYM event. Their energy contributed to our success. They were moved. We were too. Dare I say, together we were brilliant!

February 2016 Recap

It’s our shortest month, but this year is Leap Year so we get an extra day, and I can’t help thinking about all the events that are jammed into this month.

Besides Black History Month, events included the beginning of the Year of the Fire Monkey or Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day, President’s Day, the Super Bowl (without the Seahawks, who cares?), Mardi Gras, and the Academy Awards.

It’s Black History Month and, ironically, the 88th Academy Awards were presented last night. Here’s the controversy: Few nominees in all categories were people of color and none in the acting categories. Thank goodness for Chris Rock, who dished it out with finely-sharpened jabs at Hollywood. The audience and presenters included a scattering of non-whites, but it was definitely an OscarsSoWhite show.

It’s the 21st Century, and we’re still talking about the need for diversity in America! We have an African American President of the United States, but we need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter.

I love movies, but television is doing a far better job in offering acting opportunities for non-whites: “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Luther,” “Scandal,” “Scorpion,” “The Good Wife,” “Empire,” and “How To Get Away with Murder,” to name just a few.

I want to see movies that reflect the people in my world, the real America where Asians aren’t always criminals or prostitutes. But I’m not talking only about racial diversity, but gender diversity; I want to see more stories about women of all ages on the big screen. Academy Award winner Julianne Moore said that she does not go to movies featuring only men because such a world is unrealistic; this does not reflect her everyday world.

Think about this: What characters in a film could really be female instead of male? What characters could be non-white instead of white? Yes, perhaps some rewriting would be necessary, but think of the creative possibilities. Or take a page out of Shakespeare whose characters often pretended to be someone else of the opposite gender.

Hollywood is a microcosm of the larger world and here are the facts: People of color and women need more career opportunities everywhere, but white men still hold most of the wealth and power in this country. Change is inevitable, but how soon is the question.

 

 

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.