I remember the first time I had my intelligence questioned by a peer like it was yesterday; I had just won the regional spelling bee when a classmate, a non-Black person of color, started a rumor that my accomplishments were simply a result of me smoking marijuana.
I was 14, and had never smoked a day in my life.
That did not matter to school administrators, who called me into their office and checked my backpack and track bag. I had never been so humiliated in my life.
‘Hidden Figures,’ the brilliant silver-screen portrayal of the three Black American women mathematicians who helped send the late John Glenn on an orbit around the earth, pulled that incident out from the depths of my mind, and then some.
I found myself fighting back tears not even halfway through the film. Here were women who had worked their way up in the middle of Jim Crow terrorism to become NASA employees, women who did not hesitate in devoting their skills to a country that refused to see them as being worthy enough to share restrooms with white women. They sacrificed time with their family and subjected themselves to profound disrespect all for the sake of wanting to contribute to the greater good.
‘Noble’ seems too understated of a word to adequately describe their dedication.
And yet, simple human dignity in exchange for their efforts was too much for Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn to ask for—at least not until they could prove themselves more talented than virtually every other mathematician in America.
Contrary to popular opinion, their story was not a real-life substantiation of the adage that calls us to be “twice as good to get half as much.” Rather, it was a salient reminder that Black women’s intellect and accomplishments must be bar-none just for the opportunity to gain a modicum of respect from those around us.
While my heart is swelling with great pride and joy at the fact that these three hidden figures are finally being given the respect and recognition that they have long-deserved, it would be disingenuous to disregard the sharp pang I feel when thinking about the multitude of young Black girls and women who are forced to remain in the dark.
These are women who, beyond discussions of adequate recognition of their work, find their intellect and capabilities constantly questioned by those who view them at the intersection of the lesser race and the lesser sex. This manifests in many ways, whether it’s doctors who are inhibited from saving lives because there are minds too narrow and prejudiced to believe that Black women are anywhere near capable of completing four years of medical school and another five years of residency, citizens who are committed into psychiatric wards because local law enforcement refused to believe that a Black woman in Harlem could both own a BMW and be a professional banker, or a young student subjected to humiliation because the thought of her simply being able to spell better than those around her was too much for classmates and school officials to wrap their minds around.
Who are the hidden figures among us? And more importantly, will we ever succeed in creating a society in which our dignity isn’t attached to terms and conditions, and our achievements are not undermined by the relentless presence of misogynoir?
For my sake, and the sake of generations of young Black girls to come, I hope that one day our dignity becomes non-negotiable—that has never been and will never be too much to ask.