There is a line from one of our favourite movies, “Hidden Figures” that I believe may be one of the best quotes ever! It’s delivered by Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner. The movie itself is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, and is the true story of three black women, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn who were among literally the first “Computers”, human, not machine! In this case, they were also black and they worked for NASA “computing” formulas for the space race with the Soviet Union in 1961.
The book and the movie, which clearly takes some editorial license, are also, unavoidably, about United States race relations in the 60’s. Honestly, do you ever watch a film about the period and see “coloured’s only” signs and wonder if it was real? Seems impossible to believe that America was so racist and completely ignorant! I just felt the energy of the people who read that and thought…”Was?” More on that here in a bit.
White Male Bosses
In the movie, Katherine Johnson is brought in to the “Space Task Group” headed by Al Harrison, for her almost inhuman skills in “analytic geometry” and it’s key to getting John Glenn’s Mercury Rocket safely to and from space during the tense time of Sputnik and the “Race to the Moon”.
According to my research, “Al Harrison” didn’t exist. He was played by Kevin Costner who himself was even concerned about the “creation” of someone when a real boss for the Task Group actually existed. The explanation is that there were several “bosses” and for screenplay purposes, Harrison was a compilation, not of actual bosses, but the typical, “white male bosses” so common in 1961. There was also predictable misogyny but not by Harrison as much as his underlings, who were Engineers…’nuff said!
To “Harrison’s” credit, his personality profile also included a very accurate truth, even in 1961…”Find the best engineer for the job” and though he also struggled, he provided truly courageous and inspiring leadership for the time. In a riveting scene, Harrison is livid that the real-life Katherine Johnson, the only non-white and female in the office, keeps disappearing for unexplained reasons which we learn through cinematography, is for Johnson to literally run over half a mile to go to the “Coloured Women’s Only” washroom located in a different building than the Space Task Group, who by the way, does have a “women’s washroom” but for whites only! Incredible, huh?
So Harrison loses it, uses a sledgehammer to remove signage for segregated female washrooms and with a mixture of white male engineers, and black female computers witnessing the rampage take in those words…
“At NASA, we all pee the same colour!”
According to the website, “Vice”, this scene was contrived. This rather “black biased” website, which is just fine by me, takes this scene to task a bit and they have that right. In keeping with their own blunt assessment, this scene was invented to make white people feel better about one of their own becoming a champion for the plight of black people in America!
The real life Katherine Johnson also questioned some of the movie’s “accuracy” but acknowledges, it is the real life bigger story that matters!
Precisely my point with this blog.
“We All Pee The Same Colour!” All 7,530,000,000, yes seven and a half Billion, human beings on Earth pee the same colour. We are all of physiologically identical. All have hearts, brains, blood and yup, bladders. We also all poop, although now I’m getting off track! Hard not to see where my perspective on “differences” has come from, huh? But hang on a bit because there’s more.
There were also two more points that resonated for me in this movie. When NASA decides to “upgrade” their computers to an IBM Mainframe, the first of its kind, the supervisor of the human computers, almost all black women, Dorothy Vaughn, also black, challenges her team to, and I love this…”Learn what you can ladies to make yourselves valuable and you won’t lose your job!” This may be one of the biggest “elephants in the room” at any worksite around the globe.
And the second point, Mary Jackson is the third main character, and while she is easily “Engineer Caliber”, having a “black female engineer” seems to her completely impossible. She is then challenged by a lead engineer, also male and also, not typical of the time who scolds her; “Of course you’re right. Being a black female engineer is impossible. I’m a Polish Jew who’s parents were murdered at Auschwitz and I’m charge of the capsule that will take the first American into space…Impossible!” I love that!
Jackson must complete courses to get her degree but the only school in town doesn’t allow “coloured folks”, not to mention, a woman! Jackson goes to court to challenge to policy and if she was intimidated, it didn’t show. She stands up to a white judge and without a lawyer, essentially argues “The only way for something to be first is for someone to do it. Just because it’s never been done is no excuse.” Jackson wins, goes to and graduates from the engineering school and is the “First Of Her Kind”!
My Own Normal
I’m not sure if this moves you like it moves me but let me now interpret my own emotions. I was born without arms, which made me “my own normal”, yet from day one, normal is the last thing I was. How can a person be normal and different in the same body? Perspective is one answer. This is obviously a “huge” subject, and I wanted to alert you all who read my blog, check me out in social media or watch my videos, that the elusive “second book”, aka the follow up to “Alvin’s Laws of Life” is actually in the works…finally!
I don’t have a title yet but it’s essence will be “Alvin Lessons For An Amazing Life” and like my “Laws” will be my take on the essential elements of growth that have made me such an inspiration to millions.
In closing, I want to emphatically state that I have no “personal recollection” of the fight for civil rights in the 60’s and clearly, I’m not black. That’s actually another huge issue. The scarring of people, specifically in this context, black people, is deep. But I’ve also learned that living in a “state of blame” will never allow the wounds to heal. They will continue to fester like all the hate and resentment carried inside so many people of colour. The same is true in Canada for our Indigenous people. There’s no question “colonialism” existed. Residential schools existed, and for the large part, white people were to blame. But if you are Indigenous, to continue to treat every white Canadian as “the enemy” keeps you stuck in the same loop that started this in the first place.
We are, all of us, “A Work In Progress”. We should never be in denial of our past but each and every human being on planet earth has a personal responsibility to look at themselves and ask a simple set of questions.
“Am I comfortable in my own skin and if not, why not?”
“What I am prepared to do the improve my skills and attitude to make me valuable?”
“How far am I committed to go to be my own ‘First’ and not use my past as an excuse?”
“If there are so many examples in the world of people who have overcome the impossible, why can’t I?”
I don’t remember John Glenn orbiting the earth for the first time but I have a vivid memory of watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the Moon and those famous words…”That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!”
Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn weren’t on the Moon, and they weren’t the only ones to matter. But consider the “steps” it took to get there and it’s Global Impact!
We All Matter. We Can All Make A Difference. Yes We Can…Yes I Can!