A couple of days ago I watched the 2016 Hollywood movie “Hidden Figures”. Disclosure: I didn’t read the book yet, upon which the movie is based, but I plan to read it, as it sounds extremely interesting. All in all the movie is quite good, I think. The writing and acting are good, and the film tells a compelling story. Hence my negative comments should not be construed as a criticism of this particular film or the actors or writers. It’s a more general philippic on why Hollywood feels the need to bash Russia at every conceivable opportunity. It can’t even tell a wholesome uplifting story about Negro mathematicians overcoming tremendous odds to work at the NASA space program, without tossing off snide remarks about Russian backwardness – “hey those barbarians can’t even build a proper refrigerator, how the hell did they put a dog into space?” And when Soviet cosmonaut Yury Gagarin becomes the first man in space, the characters in the movie, instead of saying something nice, like, “Oh, that Gagarin is such a brave man, and he has such a nice smile” — oh, no, it’s, like, “that commie bastard beat us into space, and we can’t have that, No Sir!”
I might as well just jump to the chase: On the ideological plane, this movie promotes the “Standard American Liberal Ideology” (SALI), which I paraphrase thusly: “Sure, our country had, and has, numerous problems, including that whole racial thing. But in the end, we overcame those differences, introduced improvements, and we learned that we all have to come together as one people. To destroy the Russians.”
So, what obstacles did America have to overcome, to achieve this idyllic Russia-hatin’ consensus?
My regular readers know that I have always been fascinated by the American Civil War, the ensuing racial caste system, and the Civil Rights movement. Any movie, or book, has to be a plus, when it details just how ludicrous and unfair was this caste system. One wonders how much it cost Jim Crow society to build two sets of everything: separate bathrooms, separate water fountains (fountains being important in those hot summers in the American South, in the years before bottled water was invented), separate schools, separate hospitals, even separate libraries! Separate everything. So inefficient, and so unfair, since the “colored” version of a social service usually turned out to be second rate. The movie “Hidden Figures” shows many examples of our plucky female protagonists encountering these “separate facilities issues” in their hometown of Hampton, Virginia. Our main heroine, Katherine Goble Johnson, spends wasted hours every day (when she should be sitting at her desk crunching numbers) rushing to and from the “Colored Ladies Bathroom” which is a quarter mile away from the office where she works!
As an unpleasant sidebar, this type of caste system, which I believe originated in ancient India when the Aryans conquered indigenous peoples, actually has a rationale to it. In the days before soap and antibiotic wipes were invented, people tended to get dirty and spread germs. There was a certain cruel logic to separating out those who performed the dirtiest jobs, like sweeping the streets, or cleaning toilets. In the American South, Negroes performed a lot of these dirty jobs, including manual labor, construction, etc. Many Negro women worked as maids in the homes of middle-class white people. In which capacity they encountered a lot of germs while cleaning the toilets, changing babies diapers, etc. Hence, like I said, there is a certain cruel logic to shunning such people, just as one steers clear of lice-ridden bums in the subway. But here is where the illogic of it is simply flooring: Those same Negro women who cleaned the toilets and changed the diapers, were often expected to do the cooking as well. In other words, they cooked the white folks dinner with those same hands that they had just used to change a diaper! Does anybody else see the contradiction here? Am I being too graphic?
Civil Rights and Woman Rights
Of course, that whole “please change the diaper, then cook me a meal” thing is part and parcel of “a woman’s lot” in general, always has been since time immemorial, and not just Negro women in the American South.
When the Women’s Rights movement got going in the 1960’s, in America, it rode on the coattails of the Civil Rights movement. The Women’s Rights (later “Feminist”) movement was mostly a white-woman thing, the black women were more focused, on the whole, on the racial than on the gender issues. And even later the “White Women’s Movement” became completely coopted by bourgeois women who were out to break that glass ceiling and make a buck for themselves, while stepping over other women on their way up that ladder. But in the earlier years, when the movement first got started, there were some wholesome discussions about real sociological issues – about race, caste, gender, class, and the capitalist system in general.
All of these sociological issues are touched on in “Hidden Figures”, so that has to be a plus; and by the way, when you see an old Liberal dog like Kevin Costner heading the cast, then you know there is going to be a whole lot of preachifyin’ taking place along the way.
Federal versus State
Please bear with me, Dear Readers, we haven’t even gotten to the Mathematics yet, not to mention Analytical Geometry, I still be layin’ the groundwork…. Anyhow, one of the main issues in American politics, both before and after the Civil War, is the Federal vs State conflict.
As every American schoolchild knows, the Civil War was fought over 2 main issues:
- Do States have the right to secede from the Union (the answer, 620K soldiers lives later, turned out to be a resounding “NO!”)
- Was the main class structure of the United States to be based on slavery (well, more like a combination of slavery and capitalism), or on just plain capitalism empoying free labor?
On the latter point, nobody discussed these issues more clearly, or more humanely, than abolitionist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. In her masterpiece novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet laid out in stark terms what would happen to the United States of America if slavery were allowed to expand into the Western states. The business of Slave Catching would also expand; and the despicable Catchers themselves, mostly thugs and brutish types, would eventually work their way into the financial elite of the nation:
If any of our refined and Christian readers object to the society into which this scene introduces them, let us beg them to begin and conquer their prejudices in time. The catching business, we beg to remind them, is rising to the dignity of a lawful and patriotic profession. If all the broad land between the Mississippi and the Pacific becomes one great market for bodies and souls, and human property retains the locomotive tendencies of this nineteenth century, the trader and catcher may yet be among our aristocracy.
Legend has it that President Abraham Lincoln, when he met Stowe in person for the first time, was alleged to have said: “So this is the little woman who started the big war?”
Which brings us back to the power of art, of literature in particular, and the books and movies which shape American public opinion.
Our three movie heroines work for the Federal Government, for the incipient space program of NASA. Their job title is “Computer”. This was before real computers became widespread. Human computers were mathematicians (or sometimes just ordinary people who were good at math) who crunched the numbers using whatever manual methods: Pencil and paper, chalk and blackboard, sliderule, calculators, etc. During World War II, with men being scarce, the womenfolk had to be rounded up to perform these (often routine and tedious) chores for the government. Eventually men became so scarce, and the need so great, that the government had to dip even deeper into the barrel and hire “colored” women. And this is where Dorothy, Katherine and Mary got their big break. Without the horrors of the war, these high-IQ Negro women might have been forced to live obscure and meaningless lives, never having the opportunity to show off what they could really do.
The Mechanics Of Segregation
NASA is a federal agency. Already by the time of World War II, the federal government was becoming the (sometimes reluctant) Protector of the Negro people against Jim Crow states rights, Hence, NASA bore certain responsibilities to protect the rights of its Negro employees. However, physically, the facilities were located in the state of Virginia. And therefore had to abide by state law, namely Jim Crow segregation. This is one of the main sources of Job Dissatisfaction for our talented protagonists.
The first order of segregation (and this isn’t Jim Crow, it’s just tradition) is Men vs Women. The male engineers work in one area and have the run of the place, with top security clearance and all the perks, including their own coffee pot.
Meanwhile, all females are Computers, no females are engineers (yet). They don’t have security clearance, and they are expected to stay quiet and invisible in the back office.
Within the “Computer” caste, there are two sub-castes: White Women and Colored Women. The White Women work in the East Wing of the complex and have their own bathroom. Their bathroom is just labeled “Ladies Room”, but it’s understood that it’s only for white ladies. Meanwhile, with the exception of Katherine, who is allowed into the East Wing, all the Negro women work in the West Wing and have their own bathroom, labeled “Colored Ladies Room”. There is a big dramatic scene later in the movie where Kevin Costner takes a crowbar and knocks down the sign above the colored bathroom. Ideological point: “Here at NASA,” Kevin spouts, “We all be the same color!” Watching the movie, I cringed in my chair, wondering if he was going to add something like: “Red, white and blue!” No, Glory Be to God and the Writers, he just left it at that…
Well, when he destroyed that sign, Costner had the right idea, but the wrong methodology. Land’s sake and fiddle-dee-dee! Kevin just destroyed the only colored bathroom in the entire complex! Now Katherine won’t have anywhere to go when she needs to relieve her coffee-fueled bladder! Don’t worry, Kevin tells her: “Go anywhere you like, preferably close to your desk.” Hey, after three cups of Doctor Sheldon Cooper’s coffee, that waste-paper basket is starting to look mighty enticing….
Next: It’s isn’t just Negroes. Women in general have a long and colorful history in the Computer Business, starting all the way back with Ada Lovelace!
[to be continued]