Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition (Shetterly)

My school received a donation of enough copies of the book for both students and staff. We are going to hear the Anisfield-Wolf award winning author speak on Friday at Cleveland State University. The Young Readers’ edition is one of the better examples of the form that I’ve encountered. Shetterly successfully intertwines the stories of the four African-American women – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden – against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, and the introduction of television. It is to her great credit that she is able to make the moments of space flight suspenseful even though the outcome is already known. There is a particularly lyrical section in the first chapter that sets the context for the experiences of these four remarkable women. I enjoyed the pictures included in the text and wished for more of them. And the explanations of the science and math were within my feeble reach in those subjects.

To reward myself, I watched the movie with my family. It was, in short, awful. Remarkably, Theodore Melfi, a white man who both co-wrote the screenplay and directed the movie (why?) managed to make it a story about Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, in full speech-making mode – Crash still loves making speeches). Melfi reduced the 4 women to 3 and maybe, maybe, the trio as main character made it hard to do much more than paint each woman as a stereotype. And I understand that you sometimes need outsider characters to show change, but for a story that was, by all accounts, a story about African-American women asserting themselves in a racist and sexist society, why does Harrison become the hero for tearing down the sign marking one bathroom being for one race only (a completely fictitious scene in a movie based on true events)? Granted, we do see the women doing math, though Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) has this awful line in response to a patronizing and sexist remark from a would be suitor: “So yes, they let women do things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.”  This is what they came up with for Johnson to articulate her intelligence and independence?!?!?!

Then there’s the troublesome nature, present in both the book and the movie, of exceptionalism. Is it possible to both applaud the telling of a purposely neglected story (though I wish, especially in the movie, that one of the women had been allowed to tell it) and to worry that the book and movie contribute to the narrative present in so many stories featuring people of color, narratives that are comforting to white people, that essentially can be boiled down to — If they can do it, why can’t you? (And therefore if you can’t, it must be due to some flaw in your character.)


Between the World and Me (Coates)

When I went to the bookstore to buy this, the clerk apologized. She apologized for two reasons. First, she said, the book hadn’t been put out on display yet, so she’d need to get it from the back. Second, she was sorry to say that though it was short, it was still going to be $24.

I’ve finished it now, and I’d like to go back to that store and back to that clerk and explain that sometimes there are books that are so grounded in time and place, and at the same time defy time and place, that they are so very valuable, whatever the cost.

There is not much I can for certain about this book. I finished it in one sitting, and I will return to it again. And again. I know that Cornel West has criticized it and its author, and I don’t know enough about West or the criticism to offer an opinion there.

The book is compact, to be sure, but that is because Coates’ language is both precise and economic. He wastes no words; he has no words to waste nor time to waste them. He writes to his son here; that is the frame. But he writes to all of us, I think, even me, one who, to thinks he is white. His words are meant to be between the world and him. That implies privacy. And it implies a barrier.

Coates’ book, like the work of Hank Willis Thomas (http://www.hankwillisthomas.com/WORKS/Photographic-/6), is focused on the power of the black body. Who controls it? What has been and continues to be built on top of it? How much time must be spent on keeping it safe?

The job of a reviewer is normally to say whether a book is good or bad – worth reading or not. I don’t think to call it good is to do it justice. It is, as Toni Morrison says on the front cover, “required reading.” It will also require re-reading.

My instinct is, as is so often the case when I read something powerful, to take it to school, to share it with my students. I know you can see the cliche coming, but that doesn’t make it less true. Most of my students (all of them, students of color) would not read the pages I offered them. Some, especially the young men, because they just don’t read; others because they can’t, at least not with the level of attention Coates’ words require. The schools have, at least until this point, failed them. But they show up – many of them, most of the time. So they have not been swallowed by the other form of education they experience – the streets. And that is what gets me going every morning.

It is a tangible thing, this book. I don’t mean to say that it’s because I don’t use an e-reader. I find that I am carrying this book with me. I need it by my side; we all do.

Recently, I had the great good fortune to see Mr. Coates in person (https://www.cityclub.org/events/between-the-world-and-me). With the cost of my ticket came a copy of his book and so I did as I always expected to do – I read it again. Much of what he said that night was familiar to me – from the book and his articles. His challenges: What if we destroyed the concept of whiteness? What if we stopped kicking the can down the road? — continue to resonate with me. I admired how he answered questions – particularly questions from students and particularly questions he knew he was not qualified to answer. He pointed to a phenomenon I’ve recognized before. When one author becomes successful, he becomes (and here he asked, despite the crowd of 700 or so, whether the cameras were turned off), the “head n—– in charge.” I was surprised to hear him say the word.

It was a question from an audience member that helped push me back into the book again. The audience member said that Coates had been criticized because his language in the book was too flowery for such a serious topic. That had not – as you may note above – been my first impression. (Around the same time, I was asked by a parent about teaching an AP class next year.) So this time, I read it with more of an eye on his writing, his carefully composed rhetoric and the diction throughout that established the parallel between that which is done to black bodies and that which is done to the earth.

The book tightened up for me. Coates said he wanted it to be short so it would pack a punch and it does. And now, after the second reading, I see a bit more clearly how it works. I hope the book comes out in paperback in time for me to use with my AP class – even if that class contains just one student.