Monday, April 3, 2017
A LESSON FROM HIDDEN FIGURES AND A MESSAGE FOR OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN
While everyone is writing tomes about Pesach/Passover and its observance and message, I would like to go in a bit of a different direction, if I may. Gratitude and HaKarat HaTov – thanking others for the hard work they have done! This is something that should be part of all of our lives, in fact part of the air that we breathe; a message I hope we all share as much as possible.
This past year, my husband Ken decided that we should see as many good movies as possible before the Oscars. I think that in the span of about six weeks, I saw more movies during their first run than I have in a decade or two, probably more, maybe ever. Usually I see maybe one or two or rarely three in the course of the year. This year, we managed to hit EIGHT, and I just love the stories they tell, the messages they carry and the chapters of our history they remind us not to forget, as well as the remarkable people whose lives we learn about.
At the top of this list has to be Hidden Figures for me. In fact, after seeing the movie, I read the book by the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, which I highly recommend for reading as well as the documentation and history it cites. As I learned more and more about Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson and other important players at that time discussed in the book but not explored in the movie such as Christine Darden and Gloria Champine, I was struck by the strides that have been made in our world by women and people of color in the work place and in life generally. Living in the Philadelphia area my entire adult life, I often note the my reactions to these stories of the racial divide and so much else in our country’s recent past – and duly noting it still leaves its scars in many places - (including Fences, Loving and other such narratives) are often much more visceral and personal than many of my friends who grew up in the North (or that area decidedly north of the Mason-Dixon Line, which apparently was a question in Baltimore, the home of my formative years).
As I noted time and years indicated in the 50s, 60s and 70s in these various narratives, I was remembering very specific chapters of my own life in which I was acutely aware that equality of opportunity and rights was not a given for women, for people of color, for people of various religions and so forth depending on where one lived and worked. I remember my mom and other women of her generation telling me that the expectation for them was to become wives and mothers with no high career ambitions, just as Dorothy Vaughn was limited in opportunities presented to her in the 30s and 40s. This was actually a point of contention between my mom and me for many years until she “got” my life and the fact that I could be a mom, a wife and a professional. I remember well the flight of John Glenn and am acutely aware that none of us knew the roles of women, much less women of color in the space endeavors in our country. The chapters of anti-Semitism, exclusion of blacks and so many others were familiar to me as I was aware that America was really a Christian Country that allowed many of us to live, hopefully freely, though not really so in too many cases. As I read about these women’s lives through the 60s and 70s I remember friends who were about six or seven years older than me and our ongoing conversations about glass ceilings we were each aware of needing to shatter. One of the women of this remarkable story, Christine Darden, had fought to take a computer programming course at George Washington University in 1973. That was my school and this was going on within the same academic environment that my friends and I were taking for granted in too many ways. Dorothy Vaughn’s dreams came to a halt in 1971 when she was “retired” due to restructuring and not able to avail herself of opportunities for which she was qualified. That was the year I graduated high school, already planning not just completing a Bachelor degree but focused on going for my Masters and Doctorate as well.
My daughters who often remind us all of the importance of gratitude are also acutely and sometimes painfully aware of the privilege they have as well, given their socio-economic background and the many factors that mark them as potentially successful people in our society. This was something they always could aspire to; while the women of Hidden Figures had to fight their way to attain the same in their own lives.
This year seems at the same time to be an appropriate one to celebrate the strides having been made through hidden stories that have now been told, all of these movies based on and some documenting true occurrences; while at the same time it would be foolhardy to not notice some of the pushback we are all witnessing regarding some of these hard won rights for freedom and the privilege of making important contributions to our society. The symbolism of Pesach/Passover is all about understanding the limits we came from (Mitzrayim, meaning narrow straits as well as the name for Egypt) and the power of freedom as well as the responsibility it places in our hands to continue to strive for so much better.
As those of us who are Jewish prepare to celebrate Pesach/Passover, also called Zeman Cheiruteinu or The Time of our Freedom, let us all take a moment and show our deepest gratitude to those who came before us and on whose shoulders and through whose battles we are able to stand where we are today. And may we all understand that just as we say we should all act as though we were with the Jewish people at the time of Yetziat Mitrayim – leaving the shackles of being at the mercy of those who would control us – it is our responsibility to continue to show gratitude for those who came before us as well as allow our own shoulders to provide support for our children and grandchildren and the many generations that are yet to come. In doing so, we should remember our responsibility to continue to fight for rights and standing that we should never take for granted and tell stories about hidden figures and triumphs.
Happy Festival of Freedom to all!