Hidden Figures


Margot Lee Shetterly

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Themes and Colors
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Community  Theme Icon
Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work  Theme Icon
Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hidden Figures, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Racism and Inequality

In 1943, the United States found itself embroiled in World War II, and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the NACA) in Langley, VA needed mathematicians to crunch numbers for its engineers. Jim Crow laws mandated segregation between blacks and whites in the NACA’s home state of Virginia, and African-Americans who lived there had to make do with “separate but equal” bathrooms, water fountains, parks, restaurants and schools. The NACA recruited highly qualified female mathematicians…

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Black computers like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson depended on their families and communities to thrive. Extended family, the church, and civic organizations like the Girl Scouts all played a part in their achievements. Shetterly offers a portrait of the bonds between members of the black middle class in the Jim Crow South, then demonstrates the ways in which the NACA’s black employees also benefitted from the integrated community that slowly…

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Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work

Pioneering black computers like Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson worked very hard. They also benefitted from healthy doses of luck. Shetterly argues that hard work and persistence set the stage for luck to make a difference in a person’s life, and she uses the term “serendipity” to describe what happens when random chance collides with preparedness. Serendipity, according to Shetterly, was a key ingredient in the West Area computers’ accomplishments.

Black computers like Johnson and…

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Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress

During World War II, military and computing technology advanced rapidly, a trend that continued through the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Hidden Figures traces a part of that history, which Shetterly calls “Aeronautics’ evolution from a wobbly infancy to a strapping adolescence.” She contrasts the high-speed evolution of defense and computing technology with the slow progress of the movement for equality and civil rights, which moved haltingly in the face of…

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