Voices of the Subdued: A Case Study

Marginalization of people of African descent, although reprehensible, has manifested in many shapes and forms throughout history, and sadly still exists in the modern society: from the lack of representation to the socio-economic challenges that confront those with an African heritage. These barriers are reflected within the literary narratives in which they starred as main characters. In this Deep Dive, we set out to explore and examine the possible links between voices echoed by the figures of alternate names for black boys and Hidden Figures.

Brief Summaries

Hidden Figures is a film about the black women who worked as mathematicians for NASA. The three main characters are Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson. Johnson worked as a human computer with her two peers in a racially segregated area. She faces many challenges on her journey: a man tells her that he is skeptical of women’s abilities in mathematics, she has to walk a long-distance from her workplace just to go to the bathroom for colored people, etc. She became involved in NASA’s projects and made great contributions to the agency, although she was stripped away from the recognition and credit that she deserved. She was eventually replaced by an electronic computer.

People often picture black boys as this amalgamation of stereotypes instead of the humans that they are. Danez Smith’s poem takes the form of a list with a total of 17 ‘alternate names’. Many are inanimate objects (ex: oil heavy starlight/coal awaiting spark and wind). Other lines such as ‘guilty until proven dead’ and ‘monster until proven ghost’ clearly indicate the prejudice that come with the negative stereotypes issued by society against people of color. However, some names also have positive connotations (ex: brilliant, shadow hued coral). In short, African-American poet Danez Smith wrote this to show us a snippet of how the world perceives black people.

Exploring the Links

Racism

A recurring theme in both works is racism. Coloured employees have a completely separate sector for them in NASA and are viewed upon as inferior or as “untouchables” by the “white” workers in the office. Notable examples of this include the scene where every other employee on Al Harrison’s Space Task Group is disgusted and demeaning towards Goble (the first black woman on the team) when she uses the coffee pot. The next day we see a separate and more obscure coffee pot placed nearby which Goble is forced to drink from. Another noteworthy example is when Mary cannot apply for a position in engineering at NASA. However to do so, she would need additional certification courses but these are offered only at the all-white nearby Hampton High School. Despite her husband’s opposition, Mary decides to file a petition for permission to attend classes at Hampton High School.

However the most pivotal moment in the entire movie is when Harrison gets annoyed by the fact that Goble has to walk 800 metres to use the washroom in the “Coloured Section”. He becomes enraged at the time being wasted on such a concept and brings down the sign, thus abolishing bathroom segregation.

Considering the fact that in the movie, the coloured were seen by other people as less capable and viewed as inferior beings and something “filth”, the poet Danez Smith plays on these prejudices in his poem. By using tools such as personification and imagery, the speaker uses harsh, pronounced sounds and alliteration in order to emphasize the different stereotypical images of black boys. Syntaxes are also used to further demonstrate a lack of humanity associated with the perception of black men. However, the syntax of the title may serve as a subtle reminder of black male individuality. The use of these various poetic devices has culminated in a message that black boys are not seen in society as individuals, despite their uniqueness, but as stereotypes and constructs.

Sexism

An interesting theme included in both the works is that of gender and how it affects everyday life within different social groups, and in inter-group interactions. The film addresses the female perspective from multiple angles.

Mary Jackson is constantly told that women can’t be engineers by everyone around her. Her husband doesn’t even like the fact that she works for NASA, since he believes - correctly - that she isn’t going to get the respect she deserves because she is a black woman. It’s arguable whether this is a form of internalized oppression, or this is simply a portrayal of class conflict. This is an interesting point in the movie, since the idea of socio-economic mobility through working with oppressive and discriminatory systems vs rejecting them all together is a perennial topic of debate.

Another reference to gender in the movie is how Dorothy’s mathematical prowess is considered a laughable notion by her love interest. It’s also interesting to see that after a period of discussion and interaction, her interest learns to respect her for who she is, recognizing that trivializing her skill was insulting. It’s fascinating how the idea of a sexist man is flipped on its head multiple times in the movie, as the concept of “Toxic Masculinity” is addressed in a way that focuses on mutual respect and conciliation.

Another interesting point is the contrast between the two pieces of literature about what aspect of discrimination they focus on. Alternate names for black boys brings to attention only the racism, specifically to do with men, where black men are seen as more tough and dangerous. On the other hand, hidden figures brings to light the benign racism mixed with sexism, as it focuses on the plight of black women facing discrimination in an office situation. For the former, black men are seen as dangerous, and for the latter, black women are seen as weak and stupid. This shows how sexism often amplified the effects of racism, and how both forms of discrimination mixed together can become even more deadly for society.

This is a particularly salient observation, since Danez Smith identifies as non-binary. Recognizing the sobering and undeniable importance of gender in society, and how people perceive boys stereotypically is almost certainly all too clear to Danez.

Syllabus Relations

The idea behind the movie “Hidden Figures” was just that: the concept of hidden figures. The tagline goes “Meet the women you don’t know, behind the mission you do”. This is an interesting reference to the concept of desert in terms of sexism. Often, female figures tend to be left behind in regarding respect and appreciation for the work that they do. This can include supporting roles they play in men’s lives and work, as well as brilliant independent creations that are generally undermined due to their sex.

An example of the first can be seen in the lives of Margaret Douglas, the mother of Adam Smith who cooked his dinner for him. The argument from the linked article goes that the ideal of an “economic man” who is self subsisting based off his own work is flawed, as even Adam Smith required the help of his mother to survive. Adam Smith, and his contemporaneous figures have been said to have been capable of continuing their work as individuals only because the female presence in their families were supporting them in everyday work. This also relates to Henry David Thoreau, whose mother supposedly did his laundry for him, while he did odd jobs and household chores in return.

This argument of course, is a debatable contention. There are ample examples of self-subsistent men and women who survived on their own, simply through perseverance and time management. An example of a self subsistent man would be Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who spent most of his life by himself, cooking, cleaning and maintaining his house. But it is undeniable that women are the ones generally forced to perform the menial tasks considered a “waste of time” for men. It is important to know that historically, women have had to be much more self-subsistent than men. This relates to the “Wages For Housework” campaign as well.

For the second, women such as Nannerl Mozart come to mind. Mozart’s talented sister who was discouraged from performing as she grew older, as it was not expected from a lady. Her skill, said to rival Mozart’s was not respected anywhere near as much, and she kept a close relationship with him till their death, helping him compose as well. Another musical prodigy would be Clara Schumann, who was essentially a producer for other artists, as she composed music that different individuals would play. Her piece in our syllabus, the “Three Romances” was written for the legendary violinist, Joseph Joachim.

Overall, the hidden figures of history are scattered all over the curriculum, we just need to look hard enough to find them. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History” focuses on this aspect of history.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is through literature that we may experience and identify with voices that would be usurped by the words and speeches of those who ‘prevail,’ or who ‘conquer.; The scientists in Hidden Figures and the figurative boys of alternate names for black boys are representative of such subdued, muted voices, brought to illumination through the stories and narratives built to highlight the contrast in figure and in authority between social classes in our societies. These narratives are here to stay: they provide new perspectives on subject matter that may be shrugged off as trivial, insignificant, or simply ‘untimely’; not to mention that some may feel uncomfortable when dealing with such subjects of history. It is paramount that we understand and allow such subdued stories to emerge, not just for the sake of it. An awareness of inequality, in this sense, is the driver for empowerment of underprivileged people.