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How Hidden Figures Changed My Life and Perspective on America

Anyone who is exalting the excellent movie “Hidden Figures” should probably do what I did. Shake your own family tree to discover if you have an interesting piece of American history hiding in plain view in your own family. Influenced by hype for the movie’s release, I finally talked to my Aunt Zita about her experiences as a real, live, African-American, woman, engineer for NASA. The only other thing I knew about her career at NASA is that my father used to joke that she was like Tommy from Martin, claiming “you don’t have a job.” Learning how far that was from the truth has changed an important perspective I’ve held on the progress of America.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe did an outstanding job detailing the true experiences of black women in NASA’s space program beginning in the 60’s. I know they did because my family’s hidden figure, Aunt Zita Robinson and I compared the movie to her personal experiences at length. Aunt Zita worked in the Clearview, Texas facility which was NASA only training facility for the astronauts. Aunt Zita, like the characters in the movie, was the only woman engineer in her department and one of few African-Americans in the entire program. A fact made much more remarkable considering that in the 21st century, African-Americans made up only 6% of engineering careers. In her 27-year career with NASA, Aunt Zita’s daily task was to ensure the computers used at her location were working so that our astronauts were prepared for space exploration. If the machine was not working, it was her job to figure out why. Due in part to her contribution, those astronauts will be known as American heroes throughout history.

Aunt Zita began her career in 1984 when she applied for the job after finding it advertised in the local newspaper. Just like the woman portrayed in the movie, Aunt Zita was a college educated mathematician not afraid to speak up for herself. After completing an entrance exam required for the job, she received a callback. Her interviewer informed her she missed one question. Certain of her skills as a mathematician, she asked for a copy of her exam, checked the question, and recomputed her math. My aunt explained to her interviewer that she was, in fact, correct. After closer examination, the interviewer found it was the answer key that was wrong and Aunt Zita was offered a job. Aunt Zita remained in that position until space shuttle Discovery completed NASA’s final mission in 2011.

The juxtaposition the costume designers for “Hidden Figures” created with the bright woman’s dress suits next to the white button downs and ties of their male counterparts brought a realization I simply overlooked my entire life. As far back as I could remember, my aunt wore, as her uniform for most of her career, a white button down shirt, dark slacks, and penny loafers. She still wears it now and I’ve learned by the movie’s depiction, that it was the standard IBM engineers’ uniform. Dorothy Vaughan, the character played by Octavia Spencer, showed just a part of the hardware work my aunt was initially responsible for when she moved the large probes on the large mainframe computers. Far quicker that the advancement of technology, Aunt Zita’s attire changed from dresses to the IBM standard to allow her to get down on the floor with the large machines just like all the male hardware engineers had to do.

I am somewhat embarrassed that I’m just learning this story, yet at the same time delighted that I am mature enough to appreciate the importance now. Living so far from my aunt, I missed the daily recounting of the interesting and challenging problems she fixed on the computers as well as the social experiences she had as a minority, a woman, and an engineer. It appears that prior to “Hidden Figures,” the fact that Aunt Zita was living American history was lost in the daily grind of bill paying and child rearing. Prior to the movie, I thought my experiences in politics made me a stand out in my family tree. My four years in elected office pales in comparison to my aunt’s 27-year career with NASA. Aunt Zita endured the changes in technology and the political, social and racial climate shifts of our country. How lucky I am she is here to tell me more about it.

Few can argue being the first and only of anything puts you in a special place of history. What an honor to brag that my Aunt Zita Robinson from 1984 and continuing throughout the entire time she worked for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, remained the only woman and African-American in her role. Much like Michelle Obama recounted years ago, things like this really make me feel like I am an American. It is empowering to know that along the lines of my family tree, we have contributed more than the theoretical blood and tears shed building this country. The look on my 9-year-old daughter’s face when I told her that her great aunt was a NASA engineer too lets me know the movie helped both of us grasps the uniqueness of that accomplishment. It is places like the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., that makes seeing, touching and experiencing direct connections with this great country possible for others. This knowledge gives me more buy-in to the importance preserving our American way of life in light of the growing hostility under the current presidential administration change.

If you are like me, enthralled with the cinematography, costume design and acting prowess that highlighted the story behind “Hidden Figures” the movie, I recommend you shake your own family tree. We are still experiencing first for women and other minorities daily. Therefore, if after a little shaking you find there are no amazing first or hidden figures in your bloodline, you can strive to be that first to break a barrier. The women portrayed in the movie raised the bar more than fifty years ago. Today, the portrayal of that story and its connection to my own life has me inspired to continue to lift the bar even higher.

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