In 1957, Christine Mann, a rising senior at the Allen School for girls in Asheville, North Carolina, starts her day at the library where she collects and sets out the daily newspapers. The news that season is all about the Little Rock Nine, the nine black teenagers trying to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Christine, following the story with interest, imagines herself in their shoes while standing in the Allen’s library.
By introducing the Little Rock Nine using Christine Mann, Shetterly conveys how significant this news is on the national stage, and at the individual level, as Christine will be a member of the first generation of black students able to attend previously all-white schools in the South.
The rest of the world is also following the story with interest. Photos of black children menaced by large white police officers circulate the globe. The United States tries to use its propaganda machine to turn the story around, but fails. Then, the Soviet Union causes a distraction.
The U.S. continues to fight to fix its image abroad. Federal officials are more worried about the country’s international reputation than the health and well-being of its black citizens.
The Russians become the first people to send an object—the Sputnik satellite—into space and control its trajectory. Christine lives through a massive shift in American history, the official start of the Space Age. Christine is as frightened by Sputnik as she was by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. As tensions increase between the US and Russia, extreme violence begins to seem more likely. Fallout shelter signs proliferate. Christine takes part in defense drills at school. Many people think of Sputnik as a technological Pearl Harbor.
Just as WWII led to rapid advancements in military technology, Sputnik sparks a turn towards space. Whereas stories about this shift generally center white Americans, by explaining all of this from Christine’s point of view, Shetterly shows how these massive political transitions impacted the individual black women who lived through them.
Just before World War I, the country’s lack of air force intelligence and technology gave rise to the NACA. Then, America’s inadequate aircraft industry was forced to catch up to, and then outplace, that of its enemies. Now the country has to rise against a new competitor: Russia and its space program. Many black newspapers and their readers fault the segregated school systems for America’s lag when it comes to space technology. Russians compel all their students to get the best possible educations, while the United States shuts black students out of the schools with the most resources. Until the United States cures itself of its racism, it will never best Russia.
America’s international problems relate directly to its internal conflict, something black journalists don’t hesitate to point out. Racism and segregation in America have hurt the country’s forward progress by locking many of its best and brightest out of its public school systems and depriving them of resources. The racism that plagues the US hurts not only African-Americans, but also the white Americans who perpetuate it.
Three years before, Christine had witnessed the desegregation of the schools after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education. Christine grew up in a town full of black people, where most of the men made their living working for the railroad line, while black women held jobs in the cotton mill or as domestic servants. In Newtown, she wonders how she will compete with white students from across the tracks. Her father works as a sales rep for North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, the successful black-owned company that underwrites the home loans of the black home buyers in Hampton. Christine attends a private school for black girls run by white Christian missionaries.
The sudden opportunity for black students to attend all-white schools comes with its own set of worries. Christine is from an entirely black community and she chooses to attend a school for black women, rather than an integrated school, in part because white people and white schools seem foreign to her. This shows that Brown vs. Board is not an immediate cure all for the country’s racial woes. The movement towards integration will happen slowly and over a long period of time.
Christine matriculates at the Hampton Institute on a scholarship covered by the United Negro College Fund after graduating from high school in 1958. Between 1957 and 1958, the Soviets launch two more satellites: Sputnik II, carrying the space dog Laika, and Sputnik III. The United States manages to put satellites Explorer I and Vanguard I into orbit, but the nation laments its lack of talented scientists and engineers. Eisenhower initiates the National Defense Education act to cultivate STEM talent. Russian engineering schools are filled with women (1/3 of the graduates from these schools were female) but the US still does not fully support women and black people in the sciences.
Christine will be in a position to watch the changes that come about as Russia continues to outpace the US and the US scrambles to catch up. It’s important here to note how much more ready America is to mobilize itself to compete with Russia than it is to undo the harm caused by institutionalized discrimination against women and people of color, even though a push for equal opportunities for all genders and races would only increase its pool of talented scientists and engineers, making it more competitive on the world stage.