Arts and Culture

Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures documents how a group of black female mathematicians helped put American astronauts on the moon. The book has been made into a film that stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae.

Shetterly will be speak on the opening day of the IdeaFestival. I spoke with her about why her book matters today, what she learned as an expat in Mexico, and why her book is not a part of black history, but American history. Listen to our conversation in the audio player above.

On why her book, “Hidden Figures” matters today:

“One of the reasons why it’s receiving such wonderfully, enthusiastic reception is because it’s asking so many of the questions that we’re asking today. You know, what does it mean to have a diverse and inclusive STEM workforce? How will our country remain competitive? How are we gonna find the people to supply all these tech jobs?

“As I was doing this research for the book, I would be just stunned at reading memos that had been written in the 50’s and the 60’s talking about the same thing. You know, how are we, where are we going to go to recruit to get more black engineers? How can we break women through the glass ceiling in engineering? These are all the questions that we’re having today. You know, what is the American dream? And what does it mean particularly to black Americans as we struggle with our relationship to that dream and our constant struggle for full citizenship rights in America?”

On stories she found while she lived in Mexico: 

“The reason why I went to Mexico, my husband and I went there and we started an English-language magazine for expats. And one of the first stories, cover stories, that we wrote was about the Afro-Mexican population on the Costa Chica of Oaxaca and Guerrero. You know, for me it was this eye opening thing.”

On understanding that black history is American History:

“A lot of times talking about this book, that’s one of the things I want people to say or to understand. I wrote this as American history. It happens to be that the protagonists are black and that they are female and thus this is black history and it’s women’s history. But this is American history. With a capital H. It’s the space program, it’s the civil rights movement, it’s the Cold War, it’s all that good ‘ole American stuff shown from the perspective of black female mathematicians.

“And I think the thing that we have to do; we need writer boot camp. I never really understood until doing this book just how active and how powerful and accessible that writing history and being a writer can be. To sort of put our voices to these stories. We’re the ones to see them because we live in these neighborhoods, we know these people, we understand the value of these stories. And it’s our responsibility to tell them.”

Margot Lee Shetterly will present at Thrivals 9.0 as part of the 2016 IdeaFestival on Tuesday, Sept. 27. Details can be found here