A Gift in Hidden Figures

hidden-figuresIf you haven’t seen the film Hidden Figures, go do so immediately. Also, if you don’t want any spoilers read no further but go see the film and then come back. Therefore be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD.

There, I’ve done my spoilery duty.


It’s Valentine’s Day and I am grateful my valentine loves going to the movies as much as I do. We have a system worked out that grants me any kind of gooey, sentimental chick-flick or weird art house film in exchange for tolerating any of his peculiarities in the form of, oh let’s say, the Resident Evil franchise.

Hidden Figures is a remarkable film in every way I can think of: great (and long overdue) story, fantastic performances, excellent direction and storytelling, and for me, the gift of a revelation. It came in the form of that damn coffee pot.

Bear with me while I take a little detour. It’s weeks later, just this past Sunday and Paul and I got up, sipped our coffee and read the morning news. As the news lately has a tendency to do, it engendered lively discussion until I just couldn’t anymore and said I can’t talk about politics anymore. It wasn’t like we were disagreeing – we weren’t but I just couldn’t.

Before we headed out to church I apologized and explained that since the depression of the election lifted slightly, what I feel a terrible lot of the time since the inauguration is anxious, sincerely scared, and on the verge of tears. While I’m trying to keep my head out of the sand and stay informed and active where it is helpful, sometimes I have to call calf-rope on it and give myself a rest. For the first time in my life, I am truly afraid for both my country and personal freedom.

Later, while driving to church I wondered out loud to Paul, Do you think this weird anxious feeling I have so often now is what Black people feel like, oh, every time someone follows them through Walmart? Or pulls them over? Like, all the time. This is their reality, a low-level, sort of baseline anxiety? A need to always have one’s guard up, almost everywhere, lest one get slapped in the face with it again?  Paul agreed this was entirely possible; I’m thinking my Black friends will let me know if I am right or wrong, or somewhere in between.

You see, I was thinking about that damn coffee pot, as I have repeatedly since seeing Hidden Figures. While we were watching the film I knew the bathroom issue would be a plot device and it was. But the bathrooms and drinking fountains were big, ugly, institutionalized racism; the coffee pot…. that coffee pot was small, petty, and deeply personal. There was Katherine, her mathematical genius’ brain feasting on complex calculations towards a first ever goal, shoulder to shoulder and day after day and hour after hour with everyone in that room. One day, she needs a cup of coffee to fuel her efforts and all eyes are upon her, silently saying, oh no you don’t.

(At this point in the film, I involuntarily scolded them with an audible, Really?)

The next day she comes in to find a crappy old peculator one of them probably pulled out of a junk box and labeled, “colored” and they all turned again and smugly stared at her, to see her reaction as they showed her her place. Here, I literally flinched and Paul squeezed my hand and whispered, “Why are you surprised?” and I wasn’t surprised, per se, I was disgusted more than anything at how pathetic and small a thing it was to do. What did a cup of coffee cost them? Was it that she touched it? They didn’t eat at diners where black hands cooked their food? And Katherine, who I envisioned had maybe let her guard down just a little, if only because they were all working so hard on such ambitious, never-before-done stuff…. only to be reminded in the most classless way possible, if there is even a classy way to do such, that she was not and never would be quite accepted by them. She was tolerated, so long as she didn’t step outside their conception of her “place”.

When I worked at a High School with a large African American population, there would occasionally be a kid in trouble who’s parent took the tack it was solely because the student was Black, and was deaf to all evidence of behavioral issues in the classroom, even when the teacher who’d written them up was themselves, Black. It’s hard to work with them, because they arrive with a preconceived set of notions and expectations, and I imagine that it is hard to do otherwise when one’s own life has been one of repeated racist experiences. As the SRO on one campus explained, “I never look for racism, it’s more I’m just not surprised when it happens”.

How hard would your heart be if over your life you were subject to an avalanche of coffee pot situations?  It’s death by a million tiny cuts.

The gift I got from that damn coffee pot is the gift of making it personal. Invested as I was in Katherine, the filmmakers gave me the gift of seeing through her eyes and heart, as clear as if she’d broken the fourth wall and said directly to me, “This is what racism looks like, up close and personal. This is the tiny, niggling detail of racism rather than the flash and size of a burning cross, or a “Colored” bathroom. This is the day-to-day, soul-killing stuff.”

My gift to you on this Valentine’s Day is to suggest we’re in a time when attentive listening, careful watching, and unreserved loving is necessary. Listen to hear rather than to answer, watch for the truth especially in unexpected places, love unconditionally, and pray without ceasing. We’ve never needed it so much.





8 thoughts on “A Gift in Hidden Figures

  1. I haven’t seen the movie, but it sounds fascinating, enlightening. My kind of movie. I live in a conservative part of the country so I’ve been exposed to the Trumpsters and their whacked logic for years. [Think Tea Party, now this.] Overall they are not a forgiving group of people, grudges go on for decades. I take comfort in this because it means that when The Donald betrays them, & he will, they will not give him a second chance. Just a thought…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry for this long comment. I love this post. I saw the movie and loved it of course. There are those black parents that don’t feel like their kids ever do anything wrong and then there are the realists. I think we could all learn a lot about each other by just talking about race from each other. It seems touchy, but conversation can only enhance an understanding about the challenges we face.

    I had an issue with my son’s English Language Arts teacher at his old school last year. She was new to the school and I met her about a month after she started. She seemed great in the beginning but started to spiral out of control with her lack of attention to putting in grades and never sending an assignment home. My son’s father and I both have undergraduate degrees in English so we pretty much make sure that our son knows how to read and write. We’re on him for handwriting and not being lazy with the English language. The school decided to alternate the 3 ELA teachers for second graders only so that a 7 year old had 3 teachers a week. What the heck was that about? Children need consistency. Oh and he’s in a French Immersion program so the entire school speaks only in French with the exception of the library, front office, janitorial staff or cafeteria.

    I reviewed his grades one week and noticed that she gave my son a zero on an assignment that never came home even though I was emailing her every week. I asked for it 3 times and then they supposedly sent it home and didn’t make a copy. I was beyond peeved. I told them that according to the County’s grading policy they couldn’t give a child in grades kindergarten through 2nd grade a zero. I explained that he’s never gotten a zero and could have been having a seizure and that should have surprised her. She had a responsibility to send that assignment home so I could have found out what his problem was that day. The fact that she couldn’t produce it or I hadn’t seen it meant that she was going to exempt the assignment. She didn’t like that.

    But, I think she felt as though I think my son is perfect. I don’t. If there is an issue, you can call, email or text me and I will leave work and address it with him. He is to respect adults. Long story short, I explained to her and the principal both that we as black parents are being overloaded every day with news about how white women put black boys in special ed or treat black girls more harshly than white girls that do the same things. I explained how statistics show that white women don’t have high hopes for black boys and these are being shoved down our throats. I never experienced this growing up and all my teachers were white. They were loving and encouraging white men and women who had the same expectations for a black girl and a black boy that they did with white boys and girls. Where the hell did those teachers go? I want those teachers to teach my son.

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    1. No apologies needed – I feel we are in a time when people need to be talking to each other, and I appreciate all you said.
      Most of my parents, because we had a high poverty rate on our campus, were not as educated as you and your son’s father. There were a lot of single parents, both mothers and fathers. I think the general public would be surprised by the number of fathers raising kids on their own. Black fathers. And doing a good job of it, too.
      And there are a few rotten eggs among teachers, too. Not many, but a few here and there who really can make a kid’s life a misery.
      And just the generational stuff that poverty can bring, little sneaky, deadly things, like the beautiful young woman who earned a Letterman jacket her junior year, due to having held a 90% average for two consecutive years. The form for the jacket was an incredibly complicated thing which baffled her and her mum, and they were not alone. But what broke my heart was this: “Miss? Can you help me with this form ‘cuz me and my mom couldn’t figure it out. No one has ever gotten a Letterman in our family. We don’t get Letterman jackets.” And all I could say was well, YOU DO. And she did. And she will be fine, I think, it she continues shaking off the low expectations someone set for her. “We don’t get Letterman jackets.” I don’t think that came from her mum, who seemed eager for her girls to succeed whenever I spoke with her. But somewhere she got the message that earning a Letterman jacket would be an anomaly.
      I again feel that our whole country would benefit by a committment to some form of Truth and Reconciliation. Let’s look at stuff that holds people back, directly in the face and deal with it. Stop looking to place blame, but also stop sweeping things under the rug because they’re ugly. Let’s look at them, learn from them, and move on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. Poverty brings about a whole different set of issues and I’ve had teachers tell me “Well, that’s not your son”. That hurts because I’m raising my son to know that he is his brother’s keeper. It is your responsibility to love and help your fellow man. You are no better than anyone and if you see someone who needs something, you need to tell me and we can do something. We’re all designed to help our fellow man. But, I’m not immune to poverty because I see it in my family who live in the country. To learn that the state of Tennessee was pretty much giving high school diplomas to people that didn’t really earn them was pretty shocking. Should I be surprised? Probably not, but we have to overhaul our educational system. Parents need to come to meetings with their child’s teacher in the first month and then every 3 months thereafter. They need to stay engaged and know that they are working together for the good of their children. It’s not an easy job being a teacher and trust me…I have the utmost respect for someone who can sit in a classroom all day and teach children. They are truly heroes. But, we have to fix our relationships. These children will come out of school and be the ones to rob you or commit crimes if they are unprepared. I know it’s extra work in a sometimes underpaying field, but we have to stay on them or find opportunities to bring in supporting help like the local Coalition of 100 Black Men and creating a mentoring program, starting a stem camp and helping children imagine a life outside of the of the one their living.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “Imagine a life outside of the one they’re living” that’s it right there. I want every kid to have the quality of education my daughter did (affluent, mostly White suburb and Gifted program). Because in the end, ALL these kids are going to be making decisions about our society when we are old and gray, and those decisions will affect us. Imagine what our society could do if every kid had a safe school with everything it needed, especially mentoring adults? To help them imagine a life different than the one they know.

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