4 Mighty Quotes From Hidden Figures
If no one told you what you can’t do, how much would you dare to try?
Unfortunately, humans have a long history of telling each other what we can and can’t do. Most of the time, we do so with words. Sometimes, with weapons. Both can cause pain and irrevocable damage, only one can inspire us to transcend physical and invisible barriers.
In the United States of the 1960s, those barriers took the form of racial segregation. African Americans were forced to use different walkways, different restaurants, different toilets, and even different park benches.
Set against this backdrop, the movie Hidden Figures tells the true story of three heroes. Three American heroes. Three Black female mathematicians, who defied the odds and made history.
Like many great stories of history, it is one told far too late and with too little accuracy, but it’s still a story worth hearing, embracing, and learning from.
Here are four awe-inspiring quotes that surprised and amazed me at the same time, along with some context and research.
1. “I’d already be one.”
In 1953, Mary Jackson accepted a job at the company that predated NASA.
She worked with Kazimierz Czarnecki, a Polish aeronautics engineer in something called the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. It was a facility designed to test airplane and later spaceship parts by subjecting models to winds at twice the speed of sound.
Czarnecki encouraged Jackson to become an engineer. In the movie, the fictional character based on Czarnecki does the same, and Jackson’s response is quite the mic-drop moment:
Karl Zielinski: “There is another opening in the Engineer Training Program. Mary, a person with an engineer’s mind should be an engineer. You can’t be a computer the rest of your life.”
Mary Jackson: “Mr. Zielinski, I’m a Negro woman. I’m not going to entertain the impossible.”
Karl Zielinski: “And I’m a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now. I’m standing beneath a spaceship that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars. I think we can say we are living the impossible. Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?”
Mary Jackson: “I wouldn’t have to, I’d already be one.”
To become an engineer, Jackson had to take certain graduate classes in maths and physics, which were only offered at an all-white high school at night. She had to jump through many hoops to be allowed to study there, but, eventually, she did it.
In 1958, Mary Jackson became an aerospace engineer, the first female Black engineer at NASA. She worked there for over 30 years before she retired, earning not just the most senior engineering title and authoring 12 technical papers but also running Nasa’s Federal Women’s Program to help women with their careers in science, tech, and mathematics. Oh, and she organized Czarnecki’s retirement party too.
2. “We all pee the same color.”
Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return routes for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit. She was also essential to the Apollo moon mission and even worked on early plans for landing on Mars.
In the movie, Katherine repeatedly runs to a segregated bathroom half a mile across the NASA campus, until her supervisor prompts her why she’s away so much of the time. When she speaks up against the discriminatory practice, an inspiring — but fictional — scene follows.
Al Harrison, the (also-fictional) director of the space program, knocks down the “Colored” sign on one of the bathrooms and says:
“There you have it. No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms. Just plain old toilets. Go wherever you damn well please. Preferably close to your desk. Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”
The scene was criticized for multiple reasons.
First, NASA was officially desegregated in 1958, which meant during the 60s, it was at least a little bit ahead of the curve when it came to inclusion and diversity. In interviews, Katherine said that, even before 1958, she “didn’t feel the segregation at NASA” because everyone was so focused on their jobs and collective mission — and that, when it comes to restrooms, she “just went on in the white one.”
Second, Al Harrison is a fictional character. Director Ted Melfi couldn’t get permission to portray the real NASA director at the time, and so he chose to form a composite figure based on three different real people.
Third, it looked like the white guy saved the day. When asked why he chose to include this scene in this way, Melfi said: “She represented everyone who had to use those bathrooms. There needs to be white people who do the right thing and Black people who do the right thing — and someone did the right thing.”
On the one hand, I can understand wanting historical accuracy. On the other, I think it’s good to include segregated bathrooms as a theme because it shows how deeply ingrained racism was in society to be able to reach even the most elemental human needs.
Personally, I thought the scene was inspiring. As a white person, it gives me an ideal to live up to. Most of all, I thought what Harrison said was powerful simply because it was true: We do all pee the same color, not just at NASA but everywhere. That’s something worth remembering.
3. “Which one will make you first?”
In order to attend her engineering classes, Mary Jackson had to petition the court of the city of Hampton. The way she builds her argument to the judge is nothing short of genius.
After asking to approach the bench, she points out the importance of being first by reminding him that he was the first in his family to serve in the army, the navy, to attend university, and to be reappointed three times as a judge. Impressed with her research, he asks: “What’s the point?”
This was Mary Jackson’s response in the movie:
“The point is, Your Honor, no Negro woman in the state of Virginia has ever attended an all-white high school. It’s unheard of.
And before Alan Shepard sat on top of a rocket, no other American had ever touched space. And now, he will forever be remembered as the US Navy man from New Hampshire, the first to touch the stars.
And I, sir, I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can’t change the color of my skin. So I have no choice but to be the first. Which I can’t do without you, sir.
Your Honor, out of all the cases you’re going to hear today, which one is going to matter a hundred years from now? Which one is going to make you the first?”
Wow! What a compelling case. She appealed to one of the judge’s values — being a pioneer — and then showed him a path towards living up to it. By allowing her to be the first, so would he be. The judge ruled in her favor.
Besides her success as an engineer, Mary Jackson accomplished many more firsts in her career — some long after she passed away in 2005 at the age of 83.
On June 24, 2020, NASA renamed its headquarters in Washington after her — the building is now called Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.
4. “It’s because we wear glasses.”
On top of racial prejudice and discriminatory laws, Black women in the 60s faced another systemic problem: sexism — and that one wasn’t limited to white men.
I’m not sure whether and how this played out in real life, but when Katherine first meets retired lieutenant and colonel Jim Johnson — her second husband-to-be — in the movie, she tells him about her work, and he immediately puts his foot in his mouth:
“They let women handle that sort of…”
Of course, Katherine won’t have any of it, and her “I’m out of here” speech makes it clear that she will not be treated like a snowflake by any man — regardless of his skin color:
“I will have you know I was the first Negro female student at West Virginia University Graduate School. On any given day, I analyze the manometer levels for air displacement, friction, and velocity, and compute over 10,000 calculations by cosine, square root, and lately, Analytic Geometry, by hand. There are 20 bright, highly capable Negro women in the West Computing Group, and we’re proud to be doing our part for the country. So, yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson, and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses. Have a good day.”
Thankfully, Johnson apologized. Eventually, he found a way to make it up to Katherine. Three years later, she said “Yes.” They were married for 60 years — long enough for him to witness his wife’s many accolades for her important, historic contributions to space travel — including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she received from Barack Obama in 2015.
In most countries, segregation has been illegal for many years, but to this day, we still tell each other what we can and can’t do. Sometimes with words, sometimes with weapons.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 broke down many barriers between humans in the United States. Many others still exist. Some people say watching movies about old times won’t change anything. I don’t think that’s true.
Understanding where our struggles as a species come from, be it struggles of sex, age, race, communication, technology, or freedom, helps us see where those struggles are going. Movies can open our minds and make us think; think about what’s right, what’s fair, and what we can do to be right and fair humans ourselves.
If all we’ll do is treat our neighbor a little more nicely than we did yesterday, some people will again say that’s not much — but maybe it’s everything.